Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 164 - 179)




  164. Can I welcome our three very distinguished witnesses this afternoon who are intending, I hope, to help us with our inquiry into the procedure governing the election of Speaker. The three witnesses are very relevant to our inquiry; we have Lord Weatherill, who was elected Speaker in 1983: we have Lady Boothroyd, who has only recently given up and was elected Speaker in 1992; and we have the Father of the House, Sir Edward Heath, who entered the house in 1950, has completed fifty years, and has presided over the election of both the last two Speakers. We welcome you all. We are undertaking this inquiry because of representations made to us by the House itself. Members were very concerned that the existing procedures may be inappropriate at this time. Can I ask the first question from the Chair: do you all agree that the current method of electing Speaker is no longer satisfactory and, if that is your view, could you give the Committee the reasons for holding that view? Sir Edward, bearing in mind that you presided over the election of the Speaker in both 1992 and 1997, I know as a Committee we would be very interested to hear whether you support the current system or whether you think it is no longer relevant and satisfactory and, if so, why.

  (Sir Edward Heath) Yes, I do, and I have given a lot of thought to this, both before the last election, after it was clear there had to be one, and since it was held as a result of the protests which were made at the time. Firstly, if I may say so, I do not think that situation is likely to arise again—certainly not in the near future—and, as members of Parliament read what happened, I think probably not for a long time, and it was the first time we had had anything like twelve candidates. My view is that, when it comes to the point of the actual election of the Speaker, all that can happen is that the Father of the House, as it now is, who takes the Chair, can carry on the election on the existing pro forma—nothing else—and that is very clear and very strict. Of course, I discussed all of this with the clerks to the House on a number of occasions, as the ex-Speaker knows, and went over it very thoroughly, and on the morning of the election we spent an hour or more on it, and of that I am absolutely clear. If people want a different arrangement, then it has to be made away from an actual election and it has to be made with a full and thorough discussion in the House. People ask "Why did you not even attempt to get it?". It was quite clear from the Opposition shouting to the proposal as well as the supporters who had had their meeting, that one could not have possibly got to any solution under hours of debate, and who was going to conduct the debate? It is not the job of the Father of the House. One has, therefore, to be clear about this. On the spot it has to be done in the way which is then set out. Now, how do you set it out? I have given thought to this. It was quite clear that the 80 or 100 members who wanted to have a debate on the day had one purpose in mind: they wanted to discuss with the potential candidates how they were going to act as Speaker and were they going to do what they wanted. They were very largely members of this Parliament for the first time and they wanted to change a whole lot—well, all well and good, but that is not the time to do it. They thought it was and Tony Benn thought he could find a solution. He knew perfectly well he had not and that is why, as soon as I said after half an hour, "We will now get down to it", everything stopped and there were no protests of any kind. I think one has to be quite clear, therefore, about this: that the way you can do it is by what is already laid down and, if they want the Speaker to do something else, the House has to debate it, have motions in the usual way—it may take hours, days, weeks—and then get it settled. Now, there was the opportunity, because Madam Speaker announced she was not going to stand again some time before the summer recess, if people wanted, to put down a motion in the House to change the procedure and persuade the Leader of the House to give the time for debate and then we would have been acting under a different situation. That was perfectly possible but nobody seized the opportunity. To be perfectly frank it was not a burning question and it was not in people's minds to do that so, as I understand it, she was not approached on this. On the day, people said to me, "Can you not persuade the Speaker to stay on and then she can preside over a debate in which the method of her election is going to be changed?". I was able to ascertain, through perfectly normal approved channels, that Madam Speaker was not prepared to stay on, so that put an end to that proposition, and what we had to do was to go ahead with the existing rules and then, if as we now see, people want to change them, it is up to them to persuade the House of Commons to change them. It is, of course, the longest time we have ever spent on the election of a Speaker; halfway through it was very embarrassing for me but we had to get over that, and we finally had seven hours, I think, on the total debate, but everybody at the end said to me, without exception—all the candidates—"Well, that did go perfectly fairly, we all had our chance, and some of us did not win", but the interesting case I thought was that delightful member from our side of the House who made a brilliant, delightful speech, very amusing and witty—but that is not the job of a Speaker. The job of the Speaker is to maintain order in the House and not to produce very witty speeches, so in that way I think he was in the wrong category. Then I am afraid my party's side of the House thought that it ought to be their turn. Well, we have only had turns in Speakers for a very short time and for most of my time in the House it was, in fact, always a Tory Speaker. If one looks back, that goes to pre-war days and they carried right on through, and then, when we got a very narrow balance in the House, they did begin to alternate. Well, that is understandable but I have had to say to some people that, you know, it really is not rational in politics to think that a party which has been in opposition for eighteen years and then gets power should have a Speaker for eight years and then have to shut up in order that a party with only a handful of members in the House of Commons gets another Speaker. Quite frankly, I much regret that my own party did not support the new Speaker and did not vote for him. That, I think, was most unpolitical and unparliamentary and I greatly regret it. Those are my preliminary thoughts, though I have given quite a lot of time to thinking them.

  165. Lady Boothroyd, do you think that the current method is no longer satisfactory and what are your reasons?
  (Lady Boothroyd) Briefly, yes, it is no longer satisfactory because the House must charge itself with looking to the future in the event of there being more than two or three candidates. The present situation could cope with two or three but we have to look to the future. Let me say, before I get to the future, that I do think it worked well on 23 October. It was cumbersome, tedious and boring, but members of Parliament knew what they were about and everybody got a fair chance. The media did not like it because it was not sexy enough for them—it was totally boring for them—but that does not matter because we do not act in this House to please the media, but it worked for us as long as it was. Now it has to be changed because there may be more than two or three candidates and I think this Committee must look at the various methods of voting, of balloting in that case. You have all had papers put before you and we all know about the exhaustive system and the alternative system; these are quite good systems to examine but there are swings and roundabouts in both of them. The exhaustive system takes much longer to do, as you know—I am not teaching my grandmother to suck eggs; you have looked at this. It does allow candidates who realise they are not going to be successful during the course of that ballot to withdraw and therefore make it rather shorter, but I do not think it matters that, once every eight years or so, the House spends a whole day electing its Speaker. It is a most important job. The alternative system has pluses in that everybody gets a fair chance and the one candidate will get more than 50 per cent of the vote. So I think there has to be an alternative way of doing that. Now, you will ask other questions about whether that ballot should be secret or not but, for the moment, I think I have answered your question in that yes, you have to look at other systems for balloting.
  (Lord Weatherill) I watched the election of the Speaker on television and, like it or not, that is what is going to happen in days to come. The public outside, whom we represent here, saw it on television so I think we have to take account of television. I do have to say that I do not think that the election of the Speaker, despite what Sir Edward has said, brought very great credit on Parliament. Also, I think the way in which he was elected really did not help the new Speaker so I would be definitely in for a change, taking into account the fact that we have got television to stay, and I think there should be a new procedure. I think probably a secret ballot would be the best way of doing it—and there are various ways of achieving that—when the Speaker emerges as the best man or woman for the job, irrespective of the party concerned. Having said that, there is a good case I think for looking for a balance between the parties in who occupies the Chair. I really do think that it is probably time that the minority parties had some opportunity to have a Speaker in the Chair. It is a long time. I think Speaker Whitley was the last Liberal we had in the Chair and, fair enough, I think they should have a chance.

  166. Before I pass the questioning to Nigel Griffiths, can I come back to Sir Edward? I am not sure I gleaned from what you said whether or not you believe in the current system or you would like to see it changed, like Lady Boothroyd and Lord Weatherill.
  (Sir Edward Heath) What I was saying was really twofold: first, I do not believe you can change it on the vote. If you want to make changes that all has to be done beforehand and seen through.

  167. But, Sir Edward, this is exactly what we are trying to do now. We are, as the Procedure Committee of the House, really at the request of the House, undertaking an inquiry. Do you think that, bearing in mind that we are coming up towards the end of a Parliament but hopefully our report will be considered by the House before the end of this Parliament and the decision taken, that we should look for a new system?
  (Sir Edward Heath) I do not, no.

Mr Griffiths

  168. Baroness Boothroyd, should there be speeches or hustings?
  (Lady Boothroyd) I am totally opposed to manifestos and hustings. A manifesto supposes and implies that the Speaker has powers and that he is spelling them out in his manifesto so that members can look at them and say, "How are you going to implement that?". The Speaker has not the powers that, maybe, a number of members think he has, and I want to go through one or two of them. Of course, the Speaker's all-important power is that of calling members to speak in general debate and at supplementary questions where the Speaker must be totally fair in not only calling minority parties but also calling minorities within the major parties, because they are all coalitions within themselves. That is crucial; it is an enormous power and authority that the Speaker has. He also has the power to select private notice questions or not; to select amendments, of course, but very little else, really. The power lies with you; it lies with the House of Commons; it lies with the members. The Speaker is the servant of the House. The Speaker can do nothing unless you give that Speaker authority. Now, if you change the Standing Orders and give the Speaker authority to do what he wants, then you can demand a manifesto from him to say, "What have you done about it, and what are you going to do?", but you are the people with the authority and you give the Speaker that authority and with that authority he can do anything he wants but without it he cannot. So I do not want you to run away with the idea that the Speaker has all the power and authority in the world. He has not; it is this House that has it, and I think this House guards it very jealously, and so it should.
  (Sir Edward Heath) If I could follow that up, I have heard the Speaker say many times before that her job was to implement fairly the Orders of the House, and that summarises it all. She said it in her acceptance speeches when she was elected, and that is right. What the people who wanted a different system were after was to find out what they were going to say and do to help them, and that is not what the Speaker is about. Those 80 or 100 who asked for the interviews beforehand wanted somebody who would say, "Yes, of course I understand your enormous interest in so-and-so, my leanings go that way as well and, yes, I will support you in that from the Chair". That is not what it is about in the least but that is what they were after, and you cannot move in that way because it is undermining the whole position of the Speaker. If you take the American system, that is quite different. The chairman of each House is of a particular party and is there to look after the interests of the party. That is not our system, and we are seeing it now in Washington being used in an unusual way.


  169. So you are opposed to the hustings, which is the individual appearing before a large number of members of Parliament, and any written statement or manifesto?
  (Sir Edward Heath) I am absolutely opposed because it cannot affect the Speaker because the Speaker, when elected, is there to carry out the Standing Orders of the House and, if the House wants something different, they have to change the Standing Orders.
  (Lady Boothroyd) Hear hear!
  (Lord Weatherill) I agree that there should be a secret ballot. My concern would be that we do not go back to the old days where the Speakership was a carve-up between the usual channels and I think we want to keep the whips well out of this. We all know each other in the community of the House of Commons; we all know our colleagues on all sides of the House; and I do not think, for reasons already stated, we need a hustings or anything of that kind. The best person for the job I think will emerge, but I would like to see it done by secret ballot.

Sir Paul Beresford

  170. Could we just chase that along? Lady Boothroyd, would you like to comment on the question of the secret ballot?
  (Lady Boothroyd) Certainly. I have given a lot of thought to whether the ballot should be secret or open and I have to tell you that I started by believing that yes, perhaps this is a different and unique occasion when it should be secret, and I gave it a good deal more thought and all my reasons were there for thinking it should be secret—the whips; also the communities within that geographical area of where the Speaker is coming from. There may be colleagues who do not want to vote for him; they might have problems within their communities and constituency parties—I thought of all of that, and this is why I thought that, in the first instance, a secret ballot would be better. But this House does not have secret ballots. It is hostile and foreign for us to have secret ballots here—unless it is within the party caucuses. Of course they do. We are all grown up; we can all justify what we do—we have to justify what we do—and I think it is better to be open about it. I am always worried too that, once you start a secret ballot on something like this, in some years' time when I have turned my toes up there will be other issues of conscience—capital punishment, abortion—where they will say, "This is a conscience issue; we must have a secret ballot". No. This House is big enough, old enough and strong enough to have an open ballot and for every member to justify the way they vote, but I would not be horrified if this Committee recommended a secret ballot because I understand the reasons for it.
  (Sir Edward Heath) It seems very odd that, at a time when everyone is talking about an open society and a free society and free votes, we now for the first time in 800 years demand a secret ballot.

Mrs Fitzsimons

  171. I think what we all want to do is to hold the office in the greatest respect both in the eyes of those in the House and outside, and although we know that your election, Lady Boothroyd, was the first election where the old historic ways and the usual channels did not work, there have been lots of allegations via the media about what has happened in the current election. If the best way of safeguarding both us as individual members and whoever is the lucky incumbent from any allegation or favour, et cetera, is to err on the side of a secret ballot, would you think that would be acceptable?
  (Lady Boothroyd) I would understand it, certainly. I have to tell you that, on my election in 1992, I never looked at the Hansard record of who voted for me and who did not until exactly one year later. I gave myself a birthday and I looked at it then.
  (Lord Weatherill) In defence of the secret ballot, I often used to say in my time that if you take 680 small businessmen and you take out 100—or, in big business, the government—the rest of them would do almost anything to sell their wares and there is always a feeling, I suppose, that if the Speaker does not call you it is because you did not vote for him or her, or whatever. After all, we have a secret ballot for general elections; why not for a Speaker? It is time-honoured and I think that is the best method. The Speaker should not know who has voted for him or her.

Mr Efford

  172. Should there be a formal involvement of the parties in the selection of Speaker and the usual channels, as they are usually referred to, and do you think that there has been a change of mood in the House and that members of Parliament are not as willing as perhaps they have been in the past to entrust the selection of Speaker to the usual channels?
  (Lord Weatherill) If I may go first on this, I remember as a new whip what a heavy heart I had delivering Selwyn Lloyd—who turned out to be a good Speaker, I have to say—when, if there had been a choice, I think John Boyd-Carpenter would have been Speaker, so I think we want to keep the whips out of this. This is a matter for back benchers; it is their choice and it should be in their hands.
  (Lady Boothroyd) This is certainly a matter for the House of Commons and not for the whips or any formal involvement whatsoever. I do not really recall before 1992 but when I was elected in 1992 I guess that the Conservative whips were organised in some way—they failed miserably and it may be that when they get involved they do fail. I know very well they send merry messages around as to who to vote for, and their flock did not do that because seventy broke away, so I guess they said to their whips "Buzz off!", and this is how I got elected. I think the House now, since that time, wants nothing to do with the whips. The House and individual members will decide themselves how they are going to behave—irrespective of usual channels or whips.


  173. Sir Edward?
  (Sir Edward Heath) As a former chief whip, I can speak from that point of view and I always told my people "Keep your hands off everybody; let them decide what they want themselves", and if you try to do it as chief whip you always get the opposite result.
  (Lady Boothroyd) Exactly! It happened.
  (Lord Weatherill) Sir Edward, that is news to me!
  (Sir Edward Heath) In fact, I rather disagree with what Lord Weatherill was saying because the plain fact was the party would not vote for John Boyd-Carpenter. I told John that I would be perfectly happy if he was elected but no, they did not want him; they had Selwyn instead and that was their decision.

Mrs Fitzsimons

  174. I think it is worth putting on the record that we agree that, since Baroness Boothroyd's election in 1992, the old ways that have been documented for the past 700 years are not any more in existence.
  (Lord Weatherill) That is absolutely right.

Mr Darvill

  175. What is your view on the question of whether the Speakership should alternate between the two main parties? We have already received in this inquiry evidence from leading members of the House that they would favour that alternation. What are your views?
  (Lady Boothroyd) I do not favour it swinging from one side to the other. I have always believed that it should be the best person in the House, the most acceptable person. It is rather hard, I suppose, on a party if it always happens that, at every election, every few years, it goes to one party but this House is more important than a particular political party and, therefore, I would always want it to go to whoever I thought was the better candidate, irrespective of where they came from.
  (Lord Weatherill) I absolutely agree that it should be the best person for the job. Nevertheless, in terms of equity and given the fact that the third party, the Liberals, have not had a Speaker since the 1800s, I think the House might in its wisdom, one day, decide that it would be right, fair and proper, to have a Liberal in the Chair.


  176. If he or she was the best person, or irrespective of that?
  (Lord Weatherill) The best person for the job, yes. People who put themselves forward to be Speaker are of a high calibre anyway—or should be, and the House in its wisdom will choose, but these are on-balance decisions and all I am saying is that, if you have two or three candidates of a high calibre, and one of them happened to be a Liberal, on balance I think it would be fair that he or she should take the Chair.

Mr Lammy

  177. We have talked about the process and I wondered if I could push you a bit further, particularly Lord Weatherill and Sir Edward Heath, on what method, in terms of the exhaustive ballot or alternative vote method, you would prefer but also to bring in the form. It was a long day; there was a lot of ceremony between the House of Lords and the Commons; a lot of people watching on television might have thought it was particularly old-fashioned. What do you think about that?
  (Lady Boothroyd) It was not shown on television; only on the Parliamentary channel because it was thought to be so boring, so I cannot answer you!

  178. A lot of people watch the channel now.
  (Lord Weatherill) There were excerpts of it on the News. It did not look good.
  (Lady Boothroyd) It was just excerpts.
  (Lord Weatherill) It did not look good.
  (Lady Boothroyd) I have answered your earlier question seriously.


  179. Sir Edward, would you like to add anything?
  (Sir Edward Heath) I am not quite sure what the point is.

  Mr Lammy: My question concerned the process of the two systems, but also the form. It is quite a ceremonial occasion.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 15 February 2001