Examination of witnesses (Questions 60
TUESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2000
and SIR GEORGE
60. Thank you. Mr Tam Dalyell?
(Mr Dalyell) Chairman, your question is about timing,
and I assume the position of a person who wants a secret ballot.
Now if there is a secret ballot the traditional selection conference
system, familiar in the Labour Party, and familiar, as I understand
it, in the Conservative Party too, could be quickly and expeditiously
conducted, with the lowest in the poll on the secret ballot falling
out, and then the procedure that we are all familiar with. There
is no problem with time in that.
Chairman: Thank you.
61. The 1972 system is based on the assumption
that the `usual channels' will operate behind the scenes and arrive
at one or, at most, two candidates deemed to be acceptable to
the House. Do you think that this system is no longer appropriate,
and should there be any formal involvement by the political parties
in the choice of a Speaker?
(Mr Dalyell) I believe it is a House of Commons matter,
and not a matter at all for the political parties; but, of course,
de facto, it becomes a matter for the political parties
if the ballot is registered. If it is secret, that is another
(Mr Maclean) Yes, of course, it is a matter for the
House, but in a political world one cannot ignore the fact that
political parties and Whips may have a view. I do not think the
Whips, on any party, were able to operate in the last election
because there were more candidates; in some ways, it prevented
the Whips' Offices from actually having much to say. And I think,
in this highly open, as well, media world, if the Whips went up
to certain candidates and said, "Look, old boy," or
"old girl", "we've taken soundings; we don't think
you're going to get many votes, perhaps you should back down,"
some candidates may have taken umbrage at that, it would have
been in the media the next day, leaked by someone or other, and
it would have tarnished the Whips' reputation, or the Government's
reputation, and the Opposition's reputation. I think the Whips
had to adopt a hands-off attitude, in this case, because there
were more colleagues. Now that is not a fault of the system, it
is not a fault of the Whips; if anything, if I may say so, delicately,
it is a fault of all the colleagues who stood, and perhaps did
not use their own judgement and back down early enough in the
(Mr Dalyell) I am a cynic, and I believe that these
voting figures, to take examples, are, in fact, meaningless, because
the truth your Procedure Committee has to face up to is that many
people voted for those whom they did not want because of pressures.
As your previous witnesses said, it is make-believe to think that
the Whips and the `usual channels' in our system do not have very
effective pressures; the only way of resisting those pressures
is that it should be a secret ballot.
(Sir George Young) I think I agree with what Mr Efford
was implying, that this is an area where the House is very rightly
jealous of its freedom, and I think it is a very difficult area
for the Whips to operate in, and I think it is possible for Whips'
interest to be counter-productive. So I am cautious about expecting
the `usual channels' to reduce the field to one or two, I think
it is very difficult for them to do, and I think that an initiative
in that direction could, as has been said earlier, be counter-productive.
62. Although, let us be fair, we heard in the
earlier evidence that there was some effort to do that by the
Conservative Whips, I understand, advising candidates to speak
to the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party to get an assessment
of their support.
(Mr Dalyell) I think I have to be very candid. Normally
I am fastidious about not speaking about party meetings, but I
think it has to be recorded that Joe Ashton did ask, and I followed
up with a very precise question on this, whether it was true that
the Conservative Chief Whip had gone to the Chairman of the Parliamentary
Labour Party and asked, "Which Conservative candidate is
most acceptable to you people?" Now that question was never
answered, because Jean Corston, not Clive Soley, was in the Chair,
she is a very truthful lady and she said she did not know. Now
I am sure that she was speaking in good faith; but there is no
doubt that is what happened.
Mrs Lorna Fitzsimons
63. Can I ask all three of you, and it was the
same question that I asked the other witnesses, is there is a
danger that, because of history, etc., we are getting overexcited
about the `usual channels', when actually the candidate that had
the biggest clout, and therefore is currently Speaker, actually
came from the non-'usual channels', and the fact that most back-bench
Members are actually more fearful of the elected Speaker and their
patronage, or lack of patronage, rather than anything to do in
the Speaker's elections with the `usual channels'?
(Mr Dalyell) It is a very shrewd question. The answer
is that, in candour, the supposition behind your question is accurate.
64. Since a lot of our deliberations will revolve
around the very simple proposition as to whether or not there
should be a balloting process in the more traditional sense, rather
than divisions of the House, and, linked with that, whether the
balloting process should be secret or open, I think it would be
very helpful to us, I think Tam has already made his view clear,
but it would be helpful if we could have from our witnesses their
views on balloting and/or open or secret?
(Mr Maclean) I would be utterly opposed to a secret
ballot on this. I do not think we have any right, as Members of
Parliament, to hide behind a secret ballot on the person we select
for Speaker of the House of Commons, and I cannot distinguish
between a secret ballot for Speaker and a secret ballot for other
things we may then vote on. And I think once we start on the secret
ballot route for Speaker we are on a slippery slope to demanding
secret ballots for a range of other things; and the day will come,
we will be able to say to our constituents, "Well I can't
tell you how I voted on the Embryology Bill; it's a secret, you
know." It maybe seems far-fetched at the moment, but we can
be heading on that route. As for having a ballot itself, I would
also oppose, I may say, the Wedgie-Benn system, not just because
I think it would take longer, and I also agree with Sir George,
in his earlier comments, we could shorten things on the day by
cutting the number of speeches, of proposer and seconder and the
candidate himself, or herself, we could shorten the process that
way; but I would not move on to a ballot paper system, because
I think it would encourage even more candidates to come forward,
a lot more would come forward because they will easily drop out
at the bottom if they have got ten votes, 30 votes, 40 votes,
50 votes. The thing about the present system is it forces the
candidates, such as yourself, Mr Winterton, to force their heads
above the parapet, to stand up in the Commons and to take the
consequences, that you might only get 30 votes, 80 votes, 100
votes, 150, you may get a very good vote, but not enough. I would
quite like a little secret ballot system and I would stand for
Speaker and I would encourage dozens of my colleagues; we can
all put on our CV, "I was a candidate for Speaker of the
House of Commons." And I would not suffer the humiliation
of having a result read out in front of the Chair, potential humiliation,
and I think that is a potent device to stop more of our fringe
candidates, or colleagues, who think they may make a very good
65. Could we just get Sir George's brief reply
to this, then Lorna wants to come in briefly. Can I say to our
witnesses, some time after six o'clock we are likely to lose our
quorum, and I want to try to get through as many questions as
possible. So Sir George, then Tam Dalyell, and then Lorna.
(Sir George Young) I do not agree with Mr Maclean.
I think, if you have a secret ballot, there is still the opportunity
to be humiliated, because while the ballot is secret the result
is not, so there would still be the potential for humiliation,
at the end of the process that Mr Maclean has just described.
I personally favour a two-tier system, where there are a large
number of candidates, with a preliminary ballot, and I am relatively
relaxed whether it is secret or open, but I think it is important
that the final stage should be the one that we have at the moment,
with the Speaker being elected in the traditional way, putting
himself before the House, making a speech, and then an open division,
and I agree with Mr Maclean on that. I think the final decision
as to who is Speaker should be in the traditional way, with the
names being published.
66. So you are really supporting the proposal
that Mr Benn put forward before 23 October?
(Sir George Young) Yes; except, with Mr Benn's proposal,
he would not have saved any time, as I understand it, because
you would have had all the speeches and then you would have had
the ballot. I personally would do it the other way round. I would
have the ballot and then have the speeches with the top two or
three candidates; otherwise you do not save any time at all, if
you adopt Mr Benn's proposals.
67. Do you think that we should save time? As
you heard our previous witnesses say, spending perhaps one day
in eight years appointing and electing the most important position
in the House of Commons, is that a bad way to spend seven hours?
(Sir George Young) It depends whether you think the
speeches made any difference, and I am not persuaded that they
68. I would hope, from the Chair, that speeches
do make a difference, otherwise why have debate?
(Mr Dalyell) It may be impertinent, but could I introduce
a practical point, in the light of what David Maclean has said.
If I am Father of the House, because this depends on the electors,
but in certain circumstances I could be Father of the House, I
must tell this Committee that I will do what you decide, other
than one thing, that I will absolutely refuse to do, and that
is to wag my finger in the direction of an individual candidate
as Ted Heath had to; it brought the House of Commons into demeaning
disrepute, and I refuse to be party of it. Now, I just repeat,
of course, I will do what this Committee decides, other than that.
Mrs Lorna Fitzsimons
69. I just want to follow up something that
David Maclean said, and maybe not necessarily get his response
but Sir George's and Mr Dalyell's, which is the secret ballot
thing, going back to the point I made earlier; the idea that people
are scared of their electorate is not the issue, I would contend,
the people are scared of whoever the successful person is, if
they have not voted for them. And there are several instances,
historically, one of which Tony Benn himself recounted from his
own personal history, about when you actually challenge the wrath,
or etc., there are several punitive measures with which the incumbent
can actually choose to blight the life of a Member. And, therefore,
the whole idea of a secret ballot is not to hide from one's constituents,
it is actually to make sure that the patronage is absolutely fair,
to whoever the final candidate is, in terms of the Speaker. But
the second point is, is it not true that each division takes roughly
20 minutes, and therefore if you were going in to a division just
actually to do a ballot, which would be therefore a list, you
would save hours, given the hours we spent on the 12 candidates
just in the division lobby?
(Sir George Young) The answer to the second question
is yes. On the first question, I was just looking at the letter
that I sent to the Committee, I think a preliminary ballot could
well be by secret ballot, but the final one should be as it takes
place at the moment. But I am not sure that any Speaker, once
elected Speaker, would victimise whoever had not voted for him,
or her. I can think of no example. I honestly do not think that
any Speaker would behave like that. The job of the Speaker, once
elected, would be to unify, and, if anything, one could argue,
be more conciliatory to those who had not voted for him, or her.
(Mr Dalyell) Can I put a tangential issue to Lorna
Fitzsimons' probing question. There is also the question of personal
embarrassment, and last time I am afraid I had a gut reaction,
that I was damned if I was going to see friends of mine, on both
parties, humiliated by smallish votes; and regardless of one's
views on the present Speaker, or not, I thought it was, you know,
there are such things as human relations. And in those circumstances,
because we are an internal body, and one has to have personal
relations, I think those personal relations might include the
non-humiliation of good parliamentary colleagues.
(Mr Maclean) I would add, whilst it is nice to be
nice to parliamentary colleagues, if some are so courageous, or
so stupid, that they stand for Speakership and attract only a
few votes then they must suffer the consequences. And I think
part of the problem we have seen on this occasion, Mr Winterton,
is not that the `usual channels' had failed but that colleagues'
judgement itself had failed, they should have taken their own
soundings and withdrawn before they got to the stage of getting
only 30 votes, on one occasion; without criticising any particular
colleague. I also agree entirely with Sir George, I cannot see
any Speaker, in my 17 years here I do not think I have even experienced
any Speaker victimising people on any side who have not voted
for him, or her. It does not matter then, you do not have to,
once you are the Speaker; they are great enough men and women,
in any case, not to do that, and there is no political, tactical
or sheer advantage to them. I did not vote for Michael Martin.
I am hoping to reap the benefits, he will be nice to me.
(Mr Dalyell) David Maclean says he has been here 17
years. I have been here 38 years, and there was certainly one
Speaker who did victimise people, Dr Horace King.
70. Gentlemen, can I wrap up two or three points
in the same question, in view of the Chairman's restrictions on
time; it is really about the ballots. If we do go on to recommend
some form of ballot, and I think Sir George has already given
his views on this, whether, after an initial ballot, you believe
that there should be divisions according to the existing system,
in other words, we have an initial ballot and then two or three
of the top candidates then go into the existing system, and if
we do have a ballot, what form of ballot you would prefer? For
example, the Electoral Reform Society, who have given evidence
to us, have rejected the First Past the Post, they support an
Alternative Vote system, or an Exhaustive Ballot system. I would
like to know what your views are on that. And, if a ballot system
is used, what your views are on the period of nomination or the
number of nominees that a particular candidate would require;
in other words, do you think there should be a threshold?
(Mr Dalyell) May I reply to Mr Darvill? Personally,
I would exclude the need for nominees at all. I do not think that
that is either necessary or maybe desirable, because that also
raises embarrassments and party political issues.
(Mr Maclean) I dislike the suggestion that there should
be a ballot to eliminate the also-rans, and then we are left with
two or three at the top. If one were going down that route, I
would want to see a slate of perhaps four or five at the top.
I dislike the system, but I accept your premise that, hypothetically,
if we had that, what would we have; on a ballot, I would go for
a simple First Past the Post system. The Electoral Reform Society
have their own, long-established axe to grind on the electoral
system, we know that; but they would have no justification for
adopting a fancy balloting system, or a proportional representation
system for the first stage and then going on to moving a motion
and amendment for the second stage. I think we then get ourselves
in a mix of electoral systems, and it would be difficult to justify
either one of them. And as for nominees, I would keep nominees,
I would not put any threshold on it, but I think it is embarrassing
for a colleague to have to nominate oneself, I would say.
71. So basically you are saying, a proposer
and seconder, that is enough?
(Mr Maclean) That is enough.
72. Thank you. Sir George Young?
(Sir George Young) I would have one vote on the preliminary
ballot, I would not have an Alternative Vote. I think, if the
preliminary round is a ballot, the argument for having lots of
people to second you and propose you disappears, because you are
not wasting a lot of time and energy, I think you could get through
with the present system. And then, with colleagues having just
one vote on the initial ballot, obviously, it is up to the Committee
to recommend, then the top two or three would go through and then
we would vote in the conventional way.
73. Just one final point on that. If we go to
that, would you prefer the existing system of having proposers
and seconders speak during the debate on that particular motion,
as we do now, in fact?
(Sir George Young) I think my proposer and my seconder
made high quality speeches, and I am very grateful to them both,
but I am not sure, at the end of the day, it swung any votes.
74. So if we were to recommend that going through
that system we did not have the need for a proposer and a seconder
to speak in the debate, you would be happy with that recommendation?
(Mr Dalyell) My direct answer to Mr Darvill is that
proposing and seconding are superfluous.
75. You do not think that it showed, in many
cases, that there was cross-party support for particular candidates,
the fact that one might have come from the Government side, another
from the Opposition side; do you not think that that shows cross-party
support for a candidate?
(Mr Dalyell) I actually seconded a Conservative candidate,
with whom I have had a lot of associations in a different context,
because I thought precisely that if we were going to have proposing
and seconding it was highly desirable that there should have been
a seconder from an alternative party; and I believe that the Speaker
would have been greatly strengthened had he been seconded by someone
from either the Conservative Party or the Liberal Party.
76. But would you not say, Mr Dalyell, that
what I think virtually all our witnesses have said is profoundly
depressing, that things that are said in the House of Commons
have not the slightest impact on the outcome? I have to ask the
question, why do we debate?
(Mr Maclean) That does not mean that we should not
do it, Mr Winterton. You make the good point that a speech in
favour and seconding, a proposer and seconder, can identify cross-party
support. If we are in the scenario that we are down to, as Sir
George said, two or three candidates through, then we should not
then be in the business of saying, "Let's save even more
time by going straight to a vote." That is an argument we
can make for not bothering listening to Second Reading debates;
let us hear the Home Secretary, let us hear Ann Widdecombe, straight
to the vote. We do not have to save that much time, Mr Winterton.
I do not think it changed anything. The speeches did not influence
anyone. I do not think any of us were sitting on the fence, no
more than we were sitting on the fence at the hustings, the speeches
confirmed our prejudices already established; they were good speeches,
worth listening to, but at the end of the day it did not change
the votes one iota, I suspect. But that does not mean we should
not do it, and the House of Commons, in the election of a Speaker,
should have the decency and the courtesy to propose it and second
77. That has led me straight into a question
that I want to put, and I think it is very important to this Committee.
Is there a case for written manifestos from those that are standing,
and a case for the hustings, to which you have just referred?
But, having said that, is there not a danger that this will encourage
candidates to make promises and to set out policies on matters
which are not really for the Speaker as the impartial servant
of the House?
(Mr Dalyell) The proper place for the hustings is
the Chamber of the House of Commons, and each person who puts
themselves forward can speak for ten minutes or a quarter of an
hour, saying how they see the job of Speaker, how they would conduct
themselves, and that is the proper way to do it, and taking time
for interruptions, in the Chamber of the House, all above board.
That is the proper way to do it. If I am allowed to revert to
your previous question, I have spent a good deal of time on the
streets of Anniesland and Falkirk; do not think that what is said
and done in the House of Commons is not of great interest to a
lot of people. You would be surprised about how many watch us.
The depressing part is Prime Minister's Questions, and the inability
of the Speaker to bring the Prime Minister and the Leader of the
Opposition to the point of asking questions, rather than having
a clowning session each week that demeans Parliament.
(Sir George Young) In my very brief written evidence,
I explained why I was against the hustings and against written
manifestos, it is set out. If I could spend just ten seconds answering
your question, is it not deeply depressing, it makes no difference
what people say. I think one of the reasons that Speaker Boothroyd
went at the end of the Parliament was so that most of the House
should know most of the candidates, and also this is not like
a normal debate, where there are arguments going from side to
side, so it is not like the House of Commons in its normal session,
listening to arguments, it is judging people. And, against that
background, I do not think it is that surprising that what actually
happened on the day did not influence the judgements people have
come to over the lifetime of the Parliament; so I do not think
it is necessarily
78. Did you say judgement, or decision?
(Sir George Young) They have a judgement which leads
them to a decision. I think it would be surprising if, after three
or four years, an eight-minute speech from one of the candidates
dramatically changed the perception that the colleagues had of
that particular candidate so that their vote moved.
(Mr Maclean) These are the two most important questions
so far, Mr Winterton, if I may say so. On the hustings, I partly
agree with Tam, in that the hustings should be in the Chamber
of the House of Commons, but not on the day of the election; the
hustings should be in the House of Commons for the year, five
years, ten years, 15, 20 years previously that we had known the
colleagues. We do not need hustings meetings in a little committee
room upstairs to get to know what the candidates are like, we
have watched them, we have watched them as Deputy Speakers, or
as former Ministers, or making speeches from the back-benches,
working on Fridays, chairing Select Committees, we have seen that,
Mr Winterton. And therefore I would suggest that hustings meetings
are quite demeaning and they cannot offer us anything we should
not already have seen, if we had been attending the Chamber, serving
on Select Committees, serving on Standing Committees, we see them.
As far as manifestos are concerned, I am utterly opposed to those
as well, because, if I may say, listening to Tony Benn in the
last session, I loved what he said; he wanted a Speaker to reclaim
power for Parliament, to tell the Government where to get off,
to sort out Europe, to make sure we do not go to war without the
House of Commons being totally behind it. I would love the House
of Commons to have those powers, but I think Tony was imagining
that a Speaker somehow could reclaim that, and if we changed the
way we elected the Speaker we could reclaim those powers from
the executive; a Speaker cannot do that, and making promises in
the manifesto that a Speaker cannot deliver on is nonsense. All
the manifestos I saw from the candidates were well written, they
were worthy, but they were meaningless verbiage; the candidates
could not deliver the big stuff which Tony Benn may have wanted,
Tam may have wanted, I may have wanted. And some colleagues are
talking as if the Speaker is like an elected mayor, with democratic
authority. If we want to change the House of Commons and give
the Speaker real power, it is a totally different ball game, but
at the moment, where the Speaker is the servant of the House,
that means the Speaker does as the House of Commons tells him,
or her, to do, collectively; then having a manifesto promising
one thing, when the Speaker must do as the House of Commons promises,
is nonsense and ludicrous, and I think it demeans the office of
Speaker, at the moment.
(Mr Dalyell) We cannot expect the Speaker to do, quote,
unquote, as David Maclean put it, the big things. There is one
thing we can expect of the Speaker, and that is, he makes Ministers
and questioners stick to the point and not ramble and not gossip
in the House of Commons; that is what brings us into disrepute.
And I look, in a Speaker, for two things, independence of the
executive and a ferocity in making Members, whoever we are, stick
to the point.
79. I would say, following up that point, just
briefly, that we have heard from other Members and we have heard
in evidence earlier on that some Members want the opportunity
to be able to ask questions of the candidates because they have
an influence over issues like modernisation of the House; now
that is offered by a hustings meeting, that is not offered by
the procedure that takes place in the Chamber of the House of
Commons. So would you care to comment on that?
(Mr Dalyell) I strongly agree with Mr Efford in the
chance of putting key questions; why cannot those questions be
done, in interruption, in the Chamber of the House? My final point
is this. If I may say to the Committee, without being, I hope,
bumptious about it, I understand that you are having Mr McKay,
the Clerk, as your witness, in January; would you put the question
to Mr McKay as to what the powers are, and are not, of the Member
who happens to be Father of the House, he will explain it in his
own words. But I make this plea to you, please, please, please,
do not ask me to do something, if I am Father of the House, which
I refuse to do. I will carry out whatever you decide, other than
one thing, and that one thing is the wagging of the finger.
(Mr Maclean) To answer your question, and perhaps
later, outside the Committee, I may ask Tam what he means by the
wagging of the finger and the goings on
(Mr Dalyell) Deciding the sequence.
(Mr Maclean) And the goings on I was not particularly
(Mr Dalyell) I asked the question of Ted Heath, on
what criteria, on what basis, did he choose the sequence, and
he famously replied, as only he can, "Well, my discretion;"
he said. If I were a mimic, I would do it much better, but I am
not a mimic. But I think he will remember the television clip
of the Father of the House replying to that question. The sequence
(Mr Maclean) To answer directly Mr Efford's question,
where I was slightly disappointed in the hustings was that all
candidates felt they had to use the phrase, "I am concerned
about family-friendly hours," and making all the right noises
which are some of the current buzz words. With respect to all
the candidates who stood, their answer could have been, "If
you want family-friendly hours, you, the House of Commons, the
majority side, the Government side, change them, and I, the Speaker,
will have to obey them." It is not up to the Speaker to produce
those changes; the Speaker may have views, the Speaker is the
servant of the House. All of us, collectively, particularly the
majority party, can change any of the rules of the House as we
wish; the Speaker did not have to promise anything about guillotining
all Bills at ten o'clock, it is going to happen in this session.
Those changes have gone through because the majority of the House
of Commons, led by the Leader, and the majority party have proposed
it, the majority have done it; the Speaker's views on that are
irrelevant. But I have a feeling that many of our candidates in
the hustings, from all sides, felt they had to make these semi-promises,
or mutter the right noises, in order to get elected; that, I think,
is unfortunate, because they are, in some ways, diminishing themselves,
diminishing slightly the status of the office of Speaker, they
are making promises they cannot deliver on. The House can do what
it likes, change any rules it likes, the House can do that, it
does not need the Speaker to take a lead or to try to stop it.
80. Thank you very much. Is there any other
matter, anything that any of our witnesses would like to say?
(Mr Dalyell) Just simply, come to a conclusion quickly,
before any dissolution is announced.
81. We have that intention, Mr Dalyell. We hope
to finish taking evidence and produce a draft report by the end
of February; so, hopefully, there will be an opportunity for the
House to debate the report and to reach a decision before the
dissolution of this Parliament.
(Mr Maclean) Perhaps you need an inquiry into the
role of the Father of the House, after the next election.
Chairman: We may look at these powers in the
role of the Speaker. But can I thank Sir George Young, Mr David
Maclean and Mr Tam Dalyell very much for coming. Sorry it has
been slightly rushed, but, unfortunately, colleagues on the Committee
have to get away to other duties; but your evidence has been very
helpful, and I thank you all. Thank you.