Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 142 - 159)




  142. We now welcome the President of the Council and the Leader of the House of Commons to give evidence to us. We are very grateful to you for accepting the idiosyncrasies of what can happen in Parliament and the delay which has resulted because of divisions on the floor of the House of Commons. It is very important to us that you as Leader of the House should come and give your views about the way that Parliament elects its Speaker. You are aware of course that the current system was set up in 1972, that it was reviewed again by the Procedure Committee under the Chairmanship of my predecessor, Sir Peter Emery, who on that occasion did not recommend any change on the grounds that—and I quote from that report—"there is in our view no better system and many worse". I refer to paragraph 22. May I ask what you, as a very important person in Parliament, with really two areas of responsibility, but one particularly important to us, that is the House of Commons itself, consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of the existing method of electing a Speaker? Do you personally, or perhaps I should say do the Government and perhaps you could answer on behalf of both, wish to see a change in the system? If so, what system would you support and which system would you prefer? Do the Government, the Labour Party, have a collective view on this? No doubt you will be aware of some of the answers which were given by the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party earlier this afternoon.
  (Mrs Beckett) No, I am not, as a matter of fact. I have read some of the earlier evidence given to you by others but I am not aware of the evidence given by Mr Soley. Perhaps I should say at the outset, that I am here as a long-serving Member of the House who happens to hold the post as Leader of the House. I am not giving evidence on behalf of the Government. The Government has not taken a view on the matter, nor indeed did the Government take a view during the recent election. It is perhaps important to put that on the record, because, contrary to so much of what we hear in the House these days, of course it is quite clear from the record of the hearings in 1972 that this was not at all the case in those days. Indeed I was riveted to see, and a little stunned, the then Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, a very distinguished and honoured Member, Douglas Houghton, who was very highly esteemed in the House, actually told the Committee that he did not think the House unaided could find its own Speaker and that it had to recognise it must have some help and support from the leaders of the parties. Indeed all the tenor of the evidence then given on behalf of the Labour Party by the then Opposition Chief Whip, our Chief Whip, and by the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, was that it was for the Government and particularly for the Leader of the House to be charged with the responsibility of finding a suitable candidate and putting him or her—though they had not thought of it being a her—before the House. It is wise for me to enter a caveat immediately and say that I do not see that as my role.

  143. I am glad you have responded to my provocation.
  (Mrs Beckett) It is certainly an eye opener and a cautionary indication to those of us who assume that the history of the House has all been one way and that it is the Government who controls the House more than it did in the past. The second thing you asked me was about the strengths and the weaknesses. I think what this particular past election has shown and of course what comes through very strongly from reading the evidence of 1972, was that the expectation was that on the whole a suitable candidate, or at worst a couple of candidates if there was not complete agreement, would be found, that it was the role of the House authorities, in particular of the Government of the day, to find those people and to find someone acceptable to the House and that the House should then, on the nomination of an independent Member, make its choice or indeed endorse that choice as the case may be. That was the whole assumption and background. The expectation was that it was for the parties to weed out the other potential nominees and to ensure that a clear and simple choice was available to the House. What is very clear is that the system we have had and used works in those circumstances. It clearly does display some weaknesses when faced with a plethora of candidates. That is where the question does arise as to whether there should be some mechanism to reduce numbers in some way. I also notice, because we had the opportunity of hearing at the Modernisation Committee recently from representatives from the Canadian Parliament, that they do not have any process of nomination and seconding. My impression is from the evidence they gave us that one of the reasons for that was to remove an incentive to be a candidate because of that process of nomination and seconding. They saw that as a means of keeping down numbers and indeed they have a threshold—I think five per cent of votes—below which somebody is automatically removed from what is then an exhaustive ballot procedure. It has demonstrated, certainly the House as a whole felt, that the procedure was perhaps more time consuming that Members had anticipated or necessarily wished and we might consider some mechanism to reduce that. If we were to see any changes, I regard this very much as a House matter. I regard it as a matter for this Committee freely and in an unfettered way to put forward their views and for the House then to come to a conclusion on them. My reaction to some of the evidence you have had? I take the reverse view of that which is clearly the view in the Canadian Parliament where—I do not know whether all Members are aware of this—not only do they have an exhaustive ballot but the result of the ballot is not declared in any way. So there is no opportunity to judge that X or Y may be building up support and may perhaps be a candidate who is going to gain strength. All that happens is that somebody's name disappears from the ballot and the next ballot is announced to be between particular names. No-one ever knows how the pattern of voting is changing. I presume that the thinking in the Canadian Parliament is that that gives you some particular degree of purity in the system. For myself, I should like to know where my judgement should lie between the people who are emerging as being the strongest contenders and I should have thought that would be the view generally in the House. If we are to have a weeding out process, there is clearly something to be said for an exhaustive ballot. I should certainly prefer that to an alternative ballot. If what is intended by an alternative ballot is that you all vote at one process and then the votes are counted without any opportunity to reflect the way that ballot is going, I think it is important that the House has a Speaker with whom the House as a whole is content and anything we can do to facilitate that is in itself important. I would only make one other general observation and that is that in many of these electoral matters, it is very easy to get hooked on process or on outcome and what we might actually be wise to do is try to weigh both of those things. Certainly I sometimes get the impression, reading through the evidence you have been given, that not only are some hooked on process, but almost that the process in itself has to be pure. If you have, say, a process of exhaustive ballot, that has to be handled in a particular way and there is no room for a variation on the theme, it seems to me we ought to be trying to get that balance right between having a sound process, but also being confident that process will give us an outcome with which the House will be content.

Mrs Fitzsimons

  144. There have obviously been questionnaires and you will have had informal conversations with colleagues. My concern, and this is why I want to probe the balance of your view on secret or open ballot, is that one of the things we all have to be confident of, including whoever is the successful candidate, is that it was a process which was actually totally free and fair, that not just the "usual channels", because, as I have been heavy to say, they were the least intimidating of all those who were out currying favour over the process, and according to Tam Dalyell this is an historic thing over which he gave evidence, but also to make Members feel safe in their own mind, even if it is a self-induced paranoia, that there is no fear after the election that there might be any retribution for not voting for the incumbent candidate, which, regardless of whether there are historical situations where that has occurred, it is actually a real fear in Members' minds. Would not having a secret ballot be a way of getting over that allegation both for those inside the House and outside the House? We have seen allegations bandied in the media that the "usual channels" tried to do this and X was doing Y. It would get rid of all that. Do you have a view?
  (Mrs Beckett) It is a very interesting question and it is one of the most difficult before us. In generality and as a matter of principle I do take the view that what we do as Members should be public, should be known, and it would be somewhat of a dangerous departure. Equally, however, I entirely take your point and I have heard from others, that Speakers of whom I do not have any direct experience have from time to time been thought to display a preference. That obviously is wholly undesirable for the House as a whole and I find myself genuinely torn. In general and in principle, I absolutely think that Members should be prepared to take their decisions in public and stand by those decisions. If they are not prepared to do that, then why are they here. Equally, I can understand that concern which has been expressed. One of the things which was evident in some of the conversations and discussions was that some Members were concerned about hurting the feelings of others. I cannot recall who it was. Someone who gave evidence to you—it might have been Tam Dalyell—said they had supported a particular colleague, not particularly because they thought that colleague was likely to be the Speaker but because they did not want their feelings to be hurt and did not think it would make any difference to the outcome. All of that does make it more difficult. The only thing which has occurred to me, which you may feel is a coward's way out, but might get you as well as me off the hook, is that of course if the Committee thought that this was a change the House ought to consider, I suppose it would be open to you to recommend that be a choice given to the House.


  145. May I come in at this stage with a leading question? Will you give an undertaking to this Committee at this evidence-taking session that you will find time for a debate on this subject when our report is complete and a debate which will take place before dissolution of this Parliament.
  (Mrs Beckett) You put me in a difficulty, as you are well aware, for two reasons: one of them is because no Leader of the House ever is keen to give assurances about debates and particularly you put me in a difficulty because I know no more than you when the dissolution is likely to be. All I can therefore in all honour say to you is that obviously I cannot give you a complete guarantee and a complete commitment. What I can certainly say to you is that I am extremely mindful of the fact that the House has taken a great interest in this issue, has been anxious to have it considered expeditiously, and should it be that your Committee comes to decisions and recommendations which do advocate change in the procedures, because there are of course some who do not believe it should be changed, but if you do advocate change, particularly substantial change, and wish to have that put before the House before a dissolution and before a future election, then what I can certainly say to you is that I will take that very seriously indeed. I cannot go further than that, as you will appreciate.

  Chairman: I would not expect you, Leader of the House, to go any further than that.

Sir Paul Beresford

  146. Would you not agree that in the House as it is now, every Member virtually has been through the debacle and recognises the difficulties so it would be much more appropriate for this House rather than a new post-election House, an element of which would not have seen the election debacle, to make the decision and hopefully therefore put the new procedures, if new procedures are suggested, into place prior to the election.
  (Mrs Beckett) That is a very powerful point and one which certainly reinforces the Chairman's concerns. You will appreciate that my only anxieties are practical.

  Sir Paul Beresford: I was hoping you were going to tell us when the election was, but I realise that was a little bit hopeful.

  Chairman: You may come from deep down there in the South Pacific, but you are not going to move the Leader of the House on that question!

Mr Illsley

  147. May I just raise two points? One is referring back to the days of Douglas Houghton and the 1972 Procedure Committee report which said that the vote should not be on the basis of a secret ballot because each Member's vote was as a consequence of their being a Member of Parliament. Do you have a view on whether the vote for a Speaker should be classed as a parliamentary vote and should therefore be recorded in Hansard as other votes are? You might have heard me put the other point to other witnesses. Do you have a view on whether the sitting Speaker or a Speaker re-elected at a General Election should be subject to a trigger mechanism? In other words a vote whether to accept that Speaker rather than going to a full ballot procedure immediately after an election.
  (Mrs Beckett) On the issue of whether or not it is a parliamentary vote: clearly, was very much the judgement of those who discussed these matters in 1972. Then of course from memory they were against the process of having a ballot at all. It is not just a matter of whether it is a declared ballot, they were against that whole process and they were totally in favour of the thing being basically sorted out and endorsed by the House or a rather restricted choice being made among people who were already judged to be acceptable as potential Speakers. We are in very, very different circumstances and I do not think, with respect to Mr Houghton as he was then, that we should be bound by the judgement he made then. We are entitled to make a judgement afresh for our own times. It is a powerful argument that it is a parliamentary vote. Equally, however, as you will know, it is in effect to some extent, although I know it is within the parties, still somewhat of a parliamentary matter when for example in opposition we elect a Shadow Cabinet. That is on the basis of a secret ballot. I am not quite sure what procedures you have in the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats.


  148. It is my understanding that the Leader of the Conservative Party selects the Shadow Cabinet, as of course the Leader as Prime Minister selects the Cabinet when in Government. I have never been in receipt of any telephone calls, so I am not sure exactly how it is undertaken.
  (Mrs Beckett) Indeed as the Whip's Office selects members of select committees, but we shall not go into that today.

  149. I think it is because my name comes towards the end of the alphabet that so far I have received no call.
  (Mrs Beckett) I have always understood that was a disadvantage and indeed when I changed my name when I married, one of the arguments which led me to take that view was that it was further up the ballot paper. That was my husband's advice.

  150. You have never looked back since.
  (Mrs Beckett) The trigger mechanism. I find myself unwilling to envisage the House going through a whole procedure to no really useful purpose when everyone is satisfied with the Speaker who is in post. Equally, however, I should be concerned if we had nothing, lest there was a view that the Speaker in post had become for some reason unacceptable and this was the opportunity for people to trigger a new selection when the Speaker had not chosen to retire.

  151. Does that not throw up to an extent a difficult constitutional issue because, for instance, Michael Martin will be standing at the election as the Speaker seeking re-election.
  (Mrs Beckett) It does not throw up a difficult constitutional issue. The issue it throws up is a matter for the parties. It has been known for the election of the Speaker as a Member of Parliament to be contested. It is a convention rather than a constitutional convention that the Speaker is not opposed.

  152. The reason I ask that is obviously more often than not—and I cannot think of an occasion when it was not the case—the main party in opposition or in Government does not contest—
  (Mrs Beckett) More often than not but I am not sure that it has not happened within living memory.

  153. Therefore to an extent people may see themselves as disenfranchised.
  (Mrs Beckett) Yes.

  154. You follow the point I am making.
  (Mrs Beckett) I follow the point entirely. I certainly would not argue, as Paul Tyler just did, that we ought potentially to go through the whole panoply with one candidate. Equally, basically as we do now, to say that the Speaker will take the Chair or whatever, something along those lines, gives us enough of a get-out if there is a real problem.

Mr Darvill

  155. What is your view on the question of whether the Speakership should alternate between the main two parties?
  (Mrs Beckett) Although, I re-emphasise, I am not speaking on behalf of the Government, I have held the view for 20 years that the Speakership should alternate. I do not propose to resile from it now. It came up some 20 years or so ago because the Prime Minister of the day appeared to be envisaging not alternating at a point when the Speakership, had we continued the alternation, would have passed to the Labour Party. I felt very passionately and strongly that that was wrong. I continue to hold, and indeed to advocate the view that the Speakership ought to alternate. I made my views known to any of my party colleagues, without any discredit to their qualities, as individuals or MPs, who consulted me about my own intentions, that I would not be proposing to vote for a candidate from our party.

  156. Do you think it would not necessarily be a compromise of your view, but a view which may give support, for candidates to have support in terms of their nominations from across parties? One of the considerations we will be giving is to whether within the procedures any candidate should have more than one party support. Would you be in favour of that?
  (Mrs Beckett) It is obviously something which tends to go along with the traditions of the House. People would generally think that there was something to be said for it. Whether we should make it a condition is another question.

Mrs Fitzsimons

  157. In terms of the qualification, having had the 12 candidates and the drawn out procedure, we are looking at the idea of the ballot. The other question is about the self-selection. Currently we have a nominator and seconder. A suggestion has been made that you possibly get rid of that process and what you have is maybe a threshold, say ten people, no more, so it is not exclusive but it just gives an indication that there is some support for somebody to go further and that the compromise of the ten people, or the way it is constructed, could have, to be eligible, one person from another party, so it is not all one party as an eligibility factor. Would you agree in principle that there should be a threshold which perhaps saves some people from themselves?
  (Mrs Beckett) I have mixed feelings about it. In one sense it should be open to any Member to allow their name to go forward if there are other Members who support them. At the moment we basically only seek a nominator and a seconder. I think there should be something; I would not be attracted to the idea of complete self-nomination or to the assumption that is there in Canada that any member almost is a potential candidate. It ought to be more of an assessment than that of what the potential wish of the House is likely to be. The notion of a threshold is an interesting one. My understanding of the Canadian process is that that is a threshold of a percentage of numbers of Members of the House rather than a single number. That certainly would reduce the numbers if the thinking were that people who were not major contenders ought to be whittled down in number in some way. It is for the House whether or not we wish to make such a restriction. It is right that we should have a nomination and a seconder. It is a question as to whether or not everybody should speak. I should be a little wary of seeing too harsh a threshold because what could conceivably happen is that people are put forward who, for whatever reason, people have not especially thought of in the early stages of selection of a Speaker, but who, as they look round at the alternatives, came to seem an increasingly attractive prospect or someone unforeseen. I am very mindful of a number of occasions in my life in which an unlikely candidate has suddenly appeared and people have said "Good heavens. Why didn't we think of them before?". I should be reluctant to see too rigid an Anne-Robinson threshold.

Sir Paul Beresford

  158. You questioned whether everybody should speak. If I go back to 1992, as a new arriver in this House it was a great advantage for us, not knowing Betty Boothroyd or in fact anybody, to hear them speak and to hear the support.
  (Mrs Beckett) I take that very seriously and I think it is a different position in a new Parliament. Indeed I wonder whether there is one ideal system or whether if the feeling of the Committee or of the House is that we want to whittle the thing down to a smaller number of candidates, any one of whom might well stand a good chance of becoming the Speaker, then maybe there is scope for some kind of ballot to get us to that point and then more of the full procedure. I am very mindful of the fact that where we are in this Parliament is very different. There is an argument, and I know that was the view of Speaker Boothroyd, that one of the reasons for going during a Parliament was precisely because it was better for a Parliament with experience of the candidates to take the decision. Of course, for whatever reason, that may not always work out.


  159. Two rather different questions. Do you see that there is any wish in the House, do you have any wish personally, to see changes to the ceremonial surrounding the election of the Speaker?
  (Mrs Beckett) When you say ceremonial, do you mean the nomination and seconding and all that?

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