Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 114 - 119)




  114. May I thank you for coming to give evidence to us today as part of our inquiry into the procedure relating to the election of the Speaker in the House of Commons? As you know, the current system of electing a Speaker, set up in 1972, has been quite heavily criticised throughout the House and this is the reason for our inquiry. May I ask you what you consider to be the strengths and what you consider to be the weaknesses of the existing method of electing a Speaker? Do you personally wish to see a change and if so what system would you prefer? Does the Conservative Party which you represent as Shadow Leader of the House, have a collective view on this?
  (Mrs Browning) It would be over ambitious to suggest that the whole of the Conservative Parliamentary Party has a collective view. I do think there are some common themes which come through in the Parliamentary Party and they can really, I suppose, be put under certain headings. One is that I believe there is an overwhelming feeling that the election of the Speaker should be a secret ballot, secret in terms of how individuals cast their vote. There is also overriding concern that the way in which the Speaker is chosen by the Members of the House should not in any way be under a procedure which gives patronage either to a member of the executive or, for that matter, in terms of the proceedings, to the Father of the House. That is no disrespect to the Father of the House, but we all witnessed on 23 October last year and the Father of the House himself felt that the proceedings which he had to oversee were very unsatisfactory. Hence, I imagine, some of your deliberations have looked at his own comments on the procedure he had to administer. For example, the way in which names were put forward. Clearly whatever procedure is agreed by the House and whatever your Committee recommend, it is very important that where there are several candidates—and we had several in the ballot on 23 October—the order in which they come forward or the procedure under which their names come forward does not give an advantage to any one candidate over the other. However many candidates come forward in a future ballot, there is a sense in the Conservative Parliamentary Party that there should be a sense of equality of opportunity for all of those people to be fairly adjudged and for the method of the ballot to be such that it does not disadvantage any one Member. Perhaps I might, if I may, touch on just one or two issues which have come forward. The Committee may be interested to know that my constituency predecessor, Sir Robin Maxwell-Hyslop, who gave evidence to that 1972 Procedure Committee has written to me and drawn my attention to the Committee's report of that time, although I am sorry to say the Vote Office have yet to bring it forward. One of the points he made was that in that 1972 Committee the people at the time who gave evidence to that Committee felt even then that a secret ballot was really very, very important. I must emphasise that that is something which is seen to be unfinished business.

  115. So you do not agree with Sir Peter Emery's Committee when it reported in 1996, when they recommended no change on the grounds that "there is in our view no better system and many worse". I refer to paragraph 22 of the report of the Procedure Committee of 1996.
  (Mrs Browning) No, I do not agree with that. The system which comes forward now must be seen first of all to be a democratic system. It must be one where there is not seen to be any preference to any one candidate. Also, from the point of view of the Members who vote, it is deemed to be—and this is no disrespect to any one Speaker who has served this House—important that when the process is over it is in Parliament's interest that the way individual Members support one candidate or another is not on the record of the House for all to see because that in itself gives cause for concern, particularly to back benchers. I would certainly personally endorse that view. I have studied some of the papers which I know this Committee has seen about procedures in other countries. I was also fortunate enough recently to have a meeting with the Leader of the Canadian Parliament when he visited us a fortnight ago. I was very struck by some of the procedures they follow, not exactly replicated, but for example they deem that anybody who is not a member of the Front Bench, unless of course that person withdraws from the Front Bench in order to become a candidate, is automatically deemed to be a candidate. I would not go that far. There has to be a system of nomination, although that of course could be self-nomination so long as it was seconded by a Member of the House.

  116. Proposed and seconded or just seconded.
  (Mrs Browning) Just seconded. Self-nomination would certainly be something I would find quite acceptable, so long as there was a seconder to that. The procedure of their ballot, as you will be aware, is that in the case where they clearly have quite a number of candidates—and I understand in Canada sometimes people fail to have their name removed from the list just to test the water and I am not suggesting we go down that route but a nomination so that clearly the people we are looking at want the job, but in order to remove a lot of the people who would clearly be in a very secondary position, we might consider the Canadian approach—on the first ballot any one candidate who does not command five per cent of those who actually vote should be eliminated from the list. The Canadians tell me that does help to reduce the list quite dramatically on the first ballot. Then, to come to the methodology as to how the rest of the list is voted upon, I should personally favour—and this is not a party view, it is just a personal view—the exhaustive ballot process whereby there is a runoff between the various candidates so that you proceed with however many ballots are necessary until you get a candidate who has commanded over 50 per cent of the House. I know the Electoral Reform Society have put forward a paper which I felt was a very good paper where they examine the difference between the exhaustive ballot and alternative vote system. The principle encapsulated in that is very important and that is that no vote is wasted on any ballot. My preference would be for the exhaustive ballot rather than for AV, but the principle they have spelled out, that no vote is wasted, is an important one to consider if you are going to have a runoff of the remaining candidates who have commanded more than five per cent of the number of people who actually vote in the ballot. If it is to be a secret ballot, then clearly somebody has to administer the proceedings and I would again have no objection to the Father of the House administering those proceedings but with the Clerk of the House actually being responsible for the counting of the vote. In the Canadian Parliament they tell me that even the Father of the House would not be given the percentage breakdown of those individual votes as they go forward. It would only be the Clerk of the House who would have that information. I would agree with that. That is the right way forward.

Mr Illsley

  117. The 1972 Committee did not advocate a secret ballot. It was urged upon the 1972 Committee by Mr Maxwell-Hyslop and others, but they actually recommended against a secret ballot on the basis that it would lead to canvassing and hustings and lobbying.
  (Mrs Browning) I appreciate that and the letter Sir Robin has written to me does emphasis what a shame it is that they did not take his advice in 1972 on a secret ballot. In terms of hustings, for the benefit of new Members of Parliament, particularly where the ballot comes right at the beginning of a new Parliament where many Members may not know the individuals concerned, certainly would not have worked with them sufficiently to get a feel as to the sort of Speaker the individuals would make, there should be some opportunity, perhaps not for a hustings—it seems almost too vulgar for the position of Speaker—but certainly perhaps some form of written statement so that Members can see what the priorities of the Speaker are and how philosophically they approach the job in terms of their protection of the House of Commons. The Speaker is a pivotal person in terms of the back benchers particularly and the rights of the Chamber.

  118. As well as a speech, a nomination in the House as well?
  (Mrs Browning) Yes; I would not be opposed.

  119. The situation we have now where there is a mover and seconder.
  (Mrs Browning) Yes, I would not be opposed to that. I do think this is an important job and it is important that people have a clear understanding as to how the candidates view the job and particularly if we were to go to a self-nominating system—one could say in a way all our candidates now are self-nominating because they would not stand if they did not really want the job—it is important for us to have a feel as to how they see the various responsibilities of the Speaker.

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Prepared 15 February 2001