Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 82 - 99)




  82. Good afternoon. Thank you very much indeed for coming to give evidence to the Procedure Committee. May I welcome all of you, Clive Soley, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Sir Archie Hamilton, Chairman of the 1922 Committee of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, Mr Alasdair Morgan, who is the Parliamentary Leader of the Scottish National Party here at Westminster and Mr William Ross from Northern Ireland from the Official Ulster Unionist Party. Thank you very much. This is an important inquiry. We do have a tight timetable because it is the wish of the House that our report be received at an early date to enable the current Parliament to reach a decision on this important matter. What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of the existing method of electing a Speaker? Do you, as representatives of the House and distinguished representatives of the House personally wish to see a change to our current system of electing a Speaker and if so, what system would you prefer? Does your party, the party you are here representing, have a collective view on this matter?
  (Mr Soley) May I start with the last point first and say that although I obviously Chair the PLP I am not speaking for the PLP here. We have not actually consulted in a detailed way which would enable me to do so. Obviously I am aware of some of the views in the PLP and the answer to one of your questions is that no, there was considerable dissatisfaction with the way the Speaker was elected or the system which was used and that was primarily focused on how the candidates were called, how that listing was drawn up. That was the primary problem and it compared differently to last time when there was a much shorter list, in other words it was the long list which made the problem dramatically worse. I should also add there one other view, which I certainly hold strongly and I know the vast majority of my colleagues would also take this view, that although there is a desire to reform the system, there is no desire to change the present situation of the present Speaker who must be regarded as the Speaker of the House until such time as he chooses to go. There must be no doubt about that from anybody's point of view as the vast majority of my members would argue. What do I think is the alternative? Are you asking me that now?

  83. Yes; indeed. If you would like to see a change, what should that system be?
  (Mr Soley) I should certainly like to see a change. I do not have any very strong view on the secret ballot, which I know is used in an awful lot of other countries, but my preferred option is not to have a secret ballot. I quite like the idea of the candidates speaking to the House. I actually think there is something to be said for that, in other words the hustings take place on the floor of the House. If you are to do that, the changes I should want to see are first of all some way to shorten a long list. That should mean either a preliminary ballot, probably a paper ballot, which would enable you to rank your candidates with you being expected to get a certain percentage of the vote. I should not like to draw a line on a particular percentage. However, you might choose, say, ten per cent to get on the list or take the model which I see was recommended by the Electoral Reform Society which requires all candidates to have the preliminary ballot and to get through a hurdle which would require them to be seen as people fit to be a Speaker of the House. I am not quite sure how that would work in detail but when I read the idea in the Electoral Reform Society's paper I thought it was quite good. That give you a way of limiting the list. One of the crucial questions for your Committee is how you do shorten a longer list in a way that is fair to all contenders. When you have got to that stage, my personal preference would be for an exhaustive ballot carried out at the end so you can actually know what you are doing as you vote. I notice again the Electoral Reform Society preferred the alternative vote (AV). One of the failings of that system is that it does not enable you to think as you go, which of course the exhaustive ballot does. The other problem with it is that if you still had a fairly long list you might end up in a situation where people did not use all their votes in the alternative voting system which is again pointed out by the Electoral Reform Society. So my preference, having experienced it myself quite recently, is for the exhaustive ballot which has been used in the Labour Party for many years and it does have many things to recommend it. Those would be my preferred options. Obviously, as now, they must have 50 per cent plus as an absolute minimum in order to win over all other candidates.

  84. May I respond to a point raised by Mr Clive Soley in respect of our present Speaker? I want to make it clear, and I believe I speak on behalf of all this Committee, that this report will have nothing to do with seeking to replace Mr Michael Martin the current Speaker. I hope we shall produce a recommendation in this report which will enable the House not to proceed with a normal election of Speaker at the beginning of the next Parliament. We are looking to the longer term and we are responding to the feelings of the House on the last occasion that the current system is no longer totally appropriate. All of us are very supportive of the current Speaker, Mr Martin.
  (Mr Soley) May I say it is very helpful to have that because it will settle one or two anxieties?

  85. I have myself said this before from the Chair and we have discussed this matter today both informally and privately in the Committee and that is why I have said I believe I am able to speak on behalf of the whole Committee in making that comment in response to one of your observations early on.
  (Mr Soley) It is very helpful to have that.
  (Sir Archie Hamilton) I am very glad to hear that too because I very much believe there should be change and I think we would put a blocking in the way of that change if people thought it might affect Michael Martin as the existing incumbent. I am delighted that the Committee is undertaking to do that. When you asked me about strengths and weaknesses of the existing system I racked my brains to think of any strengths at all. I have always thought it an extremely arbitrary system. One of the problems, and I am somebody who voted against Betty Boothroyd because I was actually favouring Peter Brooke at the time when she was elected, is that whenever she claimed not to be able to remember my name when she called me afterwards, I always, in the usual paranoia which we all suffer from, felt that perhaps this was her getting her revenge. I do believe extremely strongly that we should actually have a secret ballot. I think that it should be exhaustive and I think that the only part which the floor of the House should play in this is actually one of acclamation of the person who has emerged from this secret ballot as the person who has won the exhaustive ballot. It is terribly important that we do not have it in the record of the House which way we voted and that it does remain secret all the way through. I think that is tremendously important. This certainly has been discussed by the 1922 executive and they basically do support the idea of a secret ballot, although it is extremely difficult, as you will know, to get unanimity from the executive of the 1922 Committee. The whole business of a long list is quite interesting. If you take the chairmanship of the 1922 Committee which was elected at the beginning of this Parliament, there were something like six candidates. What actually happened is that when there were two clear front runners, of whom I was fortunate to be one, the others actually fell away. It did not actually follow that people wanted, if they got a very derisory vote, to continue to get a derisory vote subsequently. The Father of the House would have to give out the actual voting figures and then you have to ask whether people hang in there for a subsequent vote, when they have only polled very badly whether they want to continue to do that. Actually what happened in the 1922 Committee election was that all the runners-up went out at that stage and it was just left to John MacGregor and myself to fight it out. I suspect that is what would actually happen too on the floor of the House. We would not have the situation we had of everybody going to the vote just because their names were in the hat. I think you would find they would drop out rather than risk humiliation. I am afraid I do not agree with Clive Soley that we achieved anything by the speeches given. Some of them were extremely moving but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the worst speeches were given in support of Michael Martin, so clearly it did not affect the vote whatsoever. I am not sure that we achieved anything by that. What I would have would be an election address on a single sheet of paper put out by each candidate. I would not have any hustings. I think we know the candidates quite well enough and particularly if we continue with the tradition of the Speaker retiring a year before the end of the Parliament. We have quite enough experience of him to be able to make our own decisions without bothering with hustings or speeches or anything else.

Sir Paul Beresford

  86. As a newcomer in 1992 I barely knew Peter Brooke; I certainly did not know Betty Boothroyd. Your scenario would not suit the situation of an early election at the beginning of a Parliament.
  (Sir Archie Hamilton) No. There would undoubtedly be a problem if you were electing a Speaker at the outset of the Parliament but you would have the election address which you could read and you could take the advice of colleagues.

Mrs Fitzsimons

  87. You were suggesting perhaps that we could in the report suggest that the precedent which was set very elegantly by the retiring Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, about giving Parliament the good grace close to an election, was actually a good precedent to set and something we might pick up on.
  (Sir Archie Hamilton) Yes, I think it would be because you are saying that at that stage the candidates' people are well known to all Members of the House because they have been there by necessity for three years and we all know them during that period. Yes, there would be strengths in that. Mind you, you could not tie a Speaker to going a year before, but certainly it would be a good recommendation and a good practice to follow.

  The Committee suspended from 4.16 p.m. to 4.40 p.m. for divisions in the House.

   88. May I ask Mr William Ross, representing the Official Ulster Unionist Party from Northern Ireland to respond to the questions which I have put?
  (Mr Ross) Not for the first time I am afraid I have to dissent with the two previous witnesses. We quite like the present system. It may be a bit tedious, it may take up some time, but it is a very important post we are trying to fill. One of the things we really like about it is that it is completely outwith the control of either the Treasury Bench or the Opposition Front Bench, that anyone and everyone can get their name put forward. We think that this is purely a matter for the House at large and that therefore no restrictions whatsoever should be put in the way of anyone who wishes their name to go forward. We have no doubt but that the Government and the Opposition have their own preferred candidates and no doubt will try to promote them behind the scenes, but I think that any Member should be free to seek the Speakership of the House. We are also in favour, if possible, of the Speakership crossing the floor of the House, whether to the major Opposition Party when it is a Government member who is resigning or to one of the minor parties; we are not too concerned with which party it goes to. We do not subscribe to the "Buggin's turn" attitude but we do think it should cross the House because the individual represents the interests of the House. We are also of the opinion that the order in which the names are proposed should not be left to the presiding officer as has happened over the last few elections of the Speaker. That duty fell to the Father of the House but it has traditionally not been that, it used to be the Clerk of the House. We did note that Mr Heath asked that persons who intended to propose a candidate should let him know about a week before the House came back. The principle of balloting for the order of things like oral questions, Private Members' Bills and so forth is now well established in the House and we think that the same procedure should apply to the names put forward as candidates. We think that ballot should take place as late in the day as possible, probably in the morning of the day of the election of the Speaker. We think that the names should be drawn by the Clerk of the House under the oversight of the Father of the House and keep it completely out of the oversight of the parties or the other officials of the House in any way. In addition, we should not want to see such a ballot for a listing being used to limit the names being put before the House. Everyone appreciates that the first name which comes up enjoys a certain advantage. We should not close our eyes to that. We believe that if anyone else wants to put their name forward, either during the course of the election or towards the end of the proceedings, they should be free to do so, but they would then be coming in at the tailend rather than being involved in the ballot for where their name should come up.

  89. Would this individual require a proposer and seconder?
  (Mr Ross) Yes, we do not see any reason why not. The present process was a bit tedious this time, but if you recall, in previous elections of the Speaker, of which I have seen a number now, it did not take all that long because normally the list of people who put their names forward is relatively small. Most candidates and their supporters do test the water before they put their names forward and they must have some hope that they are going to get a measure of support.
  (Mr Morgan) I think I speak more or less for the collective view of the SNP. That is probably easier, given the size of my parliamentary group, than for some other witnesses here. We take the majority view on this table certainly that the present system is flawed for the reason that tactical decisions have to play too great a part in who you are actually voting for and the candidates are not equal because of the order in which they are selected. Since we want the eventual winner to have clearly over 50 per cent support, that is going to be helped if people are happy with the method by which they have arrived at the election. The time taken to arrive at the decision was a problem, but that would not have been an insuperable problem if people had been happy with everything else in the process. The length of time would have been acceptable if people thought the process as a whole had been acceptable. The other systems we would favour are either the alternative vote system, which is one my party uses for internal elections, or the exhaustive ballot, which is what we use, like the Labour Party, for parliamentary candidate selections. The idea of having a consensual ballot, as the Electoral Reform Society call it, to cut down the number of people in an exhaustive ballot in order to save time does have some attractions, but the problem then is that that can give a false perspective on who is most popular. You are voting in a consensual ballot for all the people you think would be acceptable and therefore somebody may get the largest figure but that does not necessarily mean they are the most acceptable choice of a majority. That might skew the later ballots. If you are going to an exhaustive ballot, on balance you have to have a series of exhaustive ballots. That is a system we use in the Scottish Parliament for electing our Presiding Officer, but it obviously could potentially take time if you have 13 candidates. It does have to be said that if one person is going to command a substantial majority quite quickly then you do not necessarily have to have 12 separate ballots before you reach somebody who has a total majority. With regard to the other things, I share Sir Archie's view of the speeches. I thought some excellent speeches were made; it is a pity they did not actually influence the result in any way. So one may take a view as to whether they are worth having.

  90. Would you say, "What value democracy"?
  (Mr Morgan) No, I should be happy if there were speeches. All I am saying is that we know that like so much else that takes place in this place speeches do not necessarily sway the outcome, so one might ask why the election of Speaker might be any different. In regard to hustings, it would be difficult to organise them officially; there is obviously nothing we can do to stop people having unofficial hustings. The problem about official ones with 13 candidates is how on earth you get a fair balance of points of view put across. We have all been on election panels where even if you only have four of you and all four people insist on answering every question, then things are interminable. If you had hustings with 13 people in front of you, you would never get anywhere. It would be very difficult to get a fair balance of questions. The last point I should like to make, though I do not know whether it is within your remit, is that if you decide to change the system at all, if you think that is the best way to go, should we also be looking at using the same system for the election of the Deputy Speakers, which is what we do in the Scottish Parliament?

Mr Drew

  91. May I come on to the meat and drink of the election which is obviously the degree to which your party was involved in one way or another with the last Speaker's election. Did the usual channels play a part? If so, what were they? What was the mood with regard to the last Speaker's election in terms of how it was progressed? Do you think there is this mood for a change, as you have all intimated in one way or another, apart from Mr Ross, that there is certainly a mood for change? Do you think that the parties will both be capable of delivering that change, can they be trusted to deliver that change? Simple answers on a postcard please.
  (Mr Soley) The last Speaker's election, like a number of others before, showed that the Government cannot call the shots through the "usual channels". It might work sometimes but it does not work a lot of times. There was a determination in the Parliamentary Labour Party to vote Labour frankly and it showed up very early on and frankly you knew what was likely to be the outcome from some time back. Whether it would always be so, I am not so sure. If you had a different system, it might get tighter and the only argument for a secret vote is that it might enable people to switch sides more easily. My feeling is that people made up their minds quite early on in the last election and followed it through. Frankly they knew what they wanted and they got what they wanted.


  92. Are you also saying that there was not very much "usual channels" involvement? Or was there?
  (Mr Soley) I am not in a position to speak for the "usual channels". What I do know is that there was concern by front benchers on either side, some of which was made public, it was not greatly hidden, about possible outcomes and how it would look for the party, things of that nature. Everybody knew from a very early stage that the outcome was likely to be what it in fact was and it was not always what the "usual channels" wanted.
  (Sir Archie Hamilton) The Chief Whip certainly approached me and said that as Chairman of the 1922 Committee it might be a frightfully good idea if I could rally the Parliamentary Party behind one candidate because if that did not happen, then we would undoubtedly get carved up because everybody would vote for different ones. That seemed to be a very good reason for me not to get involved and the chaos the Chief Whip had anticipated took place. That was the degree of the "usual channels" at work in the Conservative Party for that one. There was certainly enormous disillusion afterwards. I can say this because I am standing down at the next election, but there was very strong feeling in the Tory Party. Bear in mind that not one single Tory actually voted for Michael Martin, so there was a feeling that we had actually ended up with perhaps the worst candidate on offer. That certainly was very disillusioning and I think that has led to a strong feeling that we should change the system next time round.
  (Mr Ross) I might say that the Unionist Party voted the last time for Betty Boothroyd because we thought it should cross the floor. We tended to look for what we thought was a better candidate on the other side of the House. We did the same by and large this time, although we were perfectly content with the outcome.
  (Mr Morgan) We were not approached, but that was probably because our six votes were not really seen as swing votes. On future occasions when the numbers are perhaps larger, who knows?

  Chairman: I would have expected an optimistic reply from the Westminster Parliamentary Leader of the SNP.

Sir Paul Beresford

  93. The question has partly already been answered. There is a feeling, inside and outside the House that the Speaker should alternate. Any thoughts? You have said yes.
  (Mr Ross) Yes.

  94. You have said yes.
  (Mr Morgan) No.

  95. It should not alternate?
  (Mr Morgan) No, you cannot have the whole principle of going for something like the alternative vote which I have suggested, where really, although it does not have to be a secret ballot, unless you are going to publish each individual ballot paper and I do not think that is worth it, is effectively a secret ballot, and have an alternating Speaker at the same time.
  (Mr Ross) We set out the principle as a general principle that it should alternate, but it could occur at some time in the future that you did not particularly like the individual who was coming up from the other side of the House. That is a matter of personal preference and we did not have a party whip on it or anything like that: individuals discussed it and we came to the general conclusions I have indicated. We think as a general principle it should alternate but it does not necessarily mean that it alternates from Labour to Conservative. It might come to any of the smaller parties.

  96. I was referring to Government opposition.
  (Mr Ross) That is fair enough; yes.
  (Mr Soley) Contrary to what has been popular opinion, I do not take the view that it ought to alternate and I never have done. Actually it moves you towards the "Buggin's turn" approach and it could exclude some very good people. There is a different issue as to the judgement you make about how you cast your vote for a particular party candidate at one time, but we should never go down the road of it being alternating parties or a "Buggin's turn" approach. That way is a dead end.

Mr Darvill

  97. You have been supplied with a statistical breakdown of responses to the questionnaire sent to various Members. This shows an overwhelming majority of the response in favour of changing to a ballot-based system with a smaller majority in favour of the ballot being secret. However, the 130 Members who replied amount to just under one quarter of the House. In your view are the views expressed in these replies broadly representative of Members' views across the House and in your particular party?
  (Mr Soley) I find it quite hard to answer that with confidence because I have picked up a number of different views. It would not surprise me to know that was accurate; it is a good sample and if you look at 130 out of 600 statistically you have a sound sample anyway. So it would not surprise me and certainly there is nothing there which I find surprising. I find the difficult one to judge is the secret ballot one. I am not quite sure where the majority lies there but I have seen the figures. Yes, nothing surprises me there. I guess it is a representative sample, but I have to say I could not put my hand on my heart and say yes, I know that reflects the views within the Parliamentary Labour Party.
  (Sir Archie Hamilton) I would support that with the Tory Party. It is extremely difficult unless you do your own private poll as to what is happening to judge exactly where it does lie. There is a desire for change and quite a strong desire on the part of the Tory Party for a secret ballot.
  (Mr Ross) One hundred and thirty is not all that big a sample. Every Member of the House presumably has views. What about the folk who did not reply? What do they think?


  98. I can only say that every Member of the House had the opportunity to reply. Whether they reply or not is entirely their own decision. We cannot force them to do so. It is a sample of a size which certainly would reflect accurately the views of the House.
  (Mr Morgan) Nothing to add.

Mrs Fitzsimons

  99. It is obviously quite clear that I am more in agreement with the Chairman of the 1922 Committee. Sorry, Clive. I do not know what that does for my future career but may I just push you? You were saying that the PLP clearly made up their minds at an early stage. It is incumbent on us to be honest that sometimes when there is an emerging majority some of the practices are ... It is about the secret ballot. Are you definitely, passionately against a secret ballot? I think the truth is that if the Speaker is going to be totally and utterly independent in everybody's minds, to be seen to be selected in a way that means there can be no allegation of pressure or favours or any adverse pressure on a parliamentarian from whichever quarter—not just the "usual channels", colleagues can be as intimidating as whips—would be better for the parliamentary process; not just for ourselves to know that it was not influenced but also the outside world and whoever is the successful candidate.
  (Mr Soley) As I indicated, I am not passionately opposed to it at all. I indicated that I do not have that strong a view about it. When you are approaching voting, policy issues should be a recorded vote; issues concerning personalities should more normally be secret. That is where you take the argument with you. My only reason for saying I think on balance I come down on the other side is that in the case of the Speaker of the House of Commons there is a case for being very open about it. I happen to take the view, which might be a little naive that MPs at the end of the day are tough enough to make up their own minds and stand or fall by what they do. If this Committee came out with a recommendation for a secret ballot it would cause me no concern at all. I might well say you have made the right decision, bearing in mind what other parliaments do. Other parliaments are massively on the side of your argument actually. I cannot believe that is by accident. I do not have a strong view, but on balance I would rather have it open though I really would not go to the wall on it.

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