Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)

TUESDAY 30 JANUARY 2001

RT HON THE BARONESS BOOTHROYD OF SANDWELL, RT HON THE LORD WEATHERILL DL AND RT HON SIR EDWARD HEATH KG MBE

Chairman

  180. The election of Speaker has quite a ceremony attached to it, not least ultimately the dragging of the individual who is chosen to the Chair to become Speaker elect, and the various traditional procedures that are associated with the election of Speaker, and I personally think, from the chair, is a fine part of our historic tradition, but that is a personal view and not the view of the Committee.
  (Lady Boothroyd) I have no objection at all to whoever is elected being dragged to the Chair. It is a very fine tradition. It means a great deal in this country. You know the history of it, or course, and why that is done? "No, no, not me" because "Off with your head"—nine speakers lost their lives. So you fight like billy-o to get there and at the eleventh hour you say you are very shy about it. It is part of the tradition here and I would not object to that at all. I am much more interested in the system of how you get there and I have explained my position on that, I think.
  (Lord Weatherill) I hope we will never, ever have such an election as we had a few weeks ago. First of all, I think that the present Speaker as a result of this had a very poor start. I very much regret the press he got; I think it was absolutely disgraceful. The role of the Speaker is a very important one and a high parliamentary office and I think it is very bad luck for a Speaker to have to start with the kind of press the present Speaker has had. I wish him well with all my heart.

  181. I think I can say from the chair that this committee does likewise. We wish Speaker Michael Martin every success and I wish to establish in front of you, as I have with previous witnesses, that the reason we are undertaking the inquiry is not in any way to put in any doubt the re-election of Michael Martin, who is standing for the election of Speaker after the next general election. I want to make that clear.
  (Sir Edward Heath) I cannot see where a Speaker elect would be fitted in, if I have understood what was said correctly, because when electing a Speaker you have candidates and neither of them is elect but then one of them is elected and you do not want a Speaker elect, if I understand the argument correctly.

  182. There is a procedure that they, of course, then, I think, go to the House of Lords to present their credentials and then come back to the Commons. Lady Boothroyd, Lord Weatherill, you have both been through the procedure.
  (Lady Boothroyd) I think that is relatively unimportant in terms of electing a Speaker, quite frankly, with respect to what you are dealing with. These matters have to be got through and it is quite a simple procedure; it does not take up a great deal of time of the House or the Speaker. I think the procedure of getting there in the first place is rather more important, and there is lots I would like to say to you that I have not been asked as yet!

Mr Efford

  183. With that in mind, as a new member I was quite surprised that our selection of Speaker had to be formally reported to the House of Lords. I think that the selection of the Speaker is the business of the House of Commons and nobody else, and we should just report our decision and, if Speakers want to pop along to the House of Lords to say, "Hello, I am the Speaker", that is their affair. Could you comment on that formal aspect—that we are expected to get approval of our selection from the House of Lords, and is there a principle involved there that we should stop?
  (Lady Boothroyd) I do not feel very strongly on that. I would not be at all worried or concerned if you stopped that procedure. I can quite understand the Commons; it is a democratically elected body and therefore it can keep it to itself; it does not have to report what it does to the House of Lords, and it would not worry me if you wanted to change that procedure at all. I do not have any strong feelings about it. There are more important matters in life than that, to me.
  (Sir Edward Heath) I agree.
  (Lord Weatherill) I am all for the ceremonial but, as Lady Boothroyd has said, it does not matter. The House of Commons, and we well know this in the House of Lords, takes precedence over the House of Lords so, if that were to go, I do not think it would matter two hoots.
  (Sir Edward Heath) It does not worry me in the least. I do not think we ought to have an inferiority complex. All I want to do is get a decent House of Lords.
  (Lady Boothroyd) Come and join us!

Mr Stunell

  184. It is obvious that we are moving away from having candidates fixed in one way or another and, therefore, there is likely to be more multi-candidate elections in the future, and it does seem to follow from that that we are likely to have election campaigns. To what extent should we rely on the common sense of members, both candidates and electors, to regulate that and to what extent do you think we need to have procedures which regulate, if possible, the campaigns which would follow from that process?
  (Lady Boothroyd) I would not be at all in favour of individual candidates campaigning and I do think this is where colleagues have to, in a way, discipline or harness other colleagues in running away with campaigning—you mean, around the tea-rooms, around the House, writing letters. I think that is to be deprecated, and I think the leader of any party, if their colleagues are campaigning in that way, ought to be taken on one side and told, "This is not the way you behave in this establishment".
  (Sir Edward Heath) What can they campaign about? All they can do is go around saying, "I shall carry out what is laid down in the House as fairly as I can". That is all they can say. They have got nothing else to campaign about.
  (Lady Boothroyd) That is true.

Chairman

  185. Sir Edward, surely people can say, "I am a damn good guy, I have done this, that, and the other; I have served on this, that, and the other"—i.e., they could seek to persuade people that they were the right person.
  (Lady Boothroyd) But it is known that they are a good person because they have been here some years. This is where the hustings and the manifesto come in—in that you have worked with these people, on committee, on select committee. You know them.
  (Lord Weatherill) I think it is going to be inevitable. Like it or not it is going to happen, but it should not happen in a formal sense. That is important. Above all, there should never, ever be a situation—which we have had in the past—where there is a cosy relationship between the government and the Chair.

Mr Stunell

  186. The situation we have to consider as a Committee is whether we introduce formal restrictions or whether we leave it to members' good sense.
  (Lord Weatherill) You will have to leave it to members' good sense because it is going to happen, whatever.
  (Sir Edward Heath) One other point I would like to make is about fairness because, when we have been in office for eighteen years, many of our people thought it was wrong that the Speaker should always come from us and, with great respect to the Speaker whom I always respected, the support which she got came in its leadership from our side of the House and the proposal was made by a Tory member, and that was the sense of fairness in the House itself. We could not go on taking speakers from one side and they also thought that the other side at that moment had the best possible Speaker, so they stepped out and voted for her. Now there were, I know, one or two possible candidates on our side who were upset by this, and it had to be explained to them. There was nothing I could do in the Chair to change that if I had wanted to—and I did not. I wanted them to vote for the person they most wanted. So the House has got a sense of fairness which rectifies itself if matters get out of proportion.

  Chairman: I think the House too, I hope I am speaking on behalf of the Committee as a whole, felt that the way you conducted the election in October produced the best possible result and was extremely fair to every single candidate who put himself or herself forward, so I think we have little to complain about although the media may not have liked it. One day in eight or nine years does not seem excessive to deal with a matter of such importance as the election of Speaker.

Mrs Fitzsimons

  187. I was just going to talk about the idea of the threshold. Currently we have a nominator and seconder and one of the matters that has been talked about, if we have a secret ballot, is that we still need to have the embarrassment factor, saving people from themselves. The idea is that we would possibly, say, have a threshold of ten members but one would be from an alternative party so that we would still maintain what we have with a nominator and seconder, which is usually that you try and show that you have a broad church approach, further afield that your own party. If we have a secret system, however, you would just give that to the clerk to show that you would be eligible to go on a ballot paper, rather than on an open system.
  (Lady Boothroyd) Yes. That sounds rather a good idea. What you are saying is that you have a broader church of support there, but why could that not be published?

  188. The idea is that, if we are trying to make sure—along the lines of a secret ballot—that, by having certain people on your team, etc, etc, which is exactly the same as going around and saying the tea-room saying "These are my mates", there is no possible implication that, because certain people supported your campaign, if you did not or were not seen to, you were not in the right camp. If you are going to go along the road of the secret ballot, keeping the nominators secret and making them part of the eligibility to get on to the ballot paper would also follow.
  (Lord Weatherill) I think you need more than just one opposition member. I would like to see the other parties involved as well.

  189. I do not mean "opposition" in that way; I mean it as in another party.
  (Lady Boothroyd) Parties, in the plural. Yes.

Chairman

  190. Do you think, Sir Edward, that we should have a greater involvement of supporters and sponsors when somebody puts themselves forward, or do you just agree with a proposer and seconder, as is the current situation?
  (Sir Edward Heath) The current situation. Is the proposal to extend them greatly?

  Mrs Fitzsimons: My suggestion was that, if we are going maybe just to have a speech on the floor of the House from the candidate rather than the proposer and seconder, as a way of perhaps saving colleagues from themselves, if you cannot get more than ten of your own colleagues, amongst whom there would have to be members from different parties to nominate you to get past "Go" stage to get you on the ballot paper, it could be done as a nominal nomination process, so that some colleagues who perhaps get carried away might think twice if they cannot get ten of their colleagues to back them. That was the idea.

Chairman

  191. Our witnesses are very quiet about this!
  (Sir Edward Heath) My feeling is, from everything which has been said to me by people, when the next occasion comes—which may not be for some time—there will not be probably more than two candidates and there may only be one, because people will say, "Look, we have to sort this out between ourselves and our parties", and they will then get on with it, and to have this as an opportunity for everybody to try and claim votes and positions in the House of Commons is not on. So I would not go for that at all.
  (Lady Boothroyd) Could I take up one of the points that Mrs Fitzsimons made? I think there is some merit in what she said but, in terms of your sponsor and speaking in the House, I think that is totally unnecessary. I want to see the speeches of the candidates recorded in Hansard—I think that is crucial—but we learn nothing from those very nice members who get up and say lovely things about us. It is just a waste of time, and what you want to hear is the candidates. That is my view.
  (Lord Weatherill) Simply in reply to Sir Edward, we cannot be absolutely certain that it will not happen again, therefore I think the Committee is quite right to inquire and introduce new rules, taking into account that we have television here to stay.

Mr Beith

  192. Where you have a sitting Speaker after a general election, should the procedure be simpler? What I have in mind is that at that point you could simply have a motion that X do assume the Chair, being the sitting Speaker, and if that is carried you do not proceed any further, and a ballot would only arise if that motion was defeated—which seems pretty unlikely. Would that commend itself to our witnesses?
  (Lord Weatherill) I think I would be unhappy for a Speaker seeking a second term not to be elected to the Chair. It would be a pretty savage blow, and I hope that would never happen, so I think there is some merit in what you suggest.
  (Lady Boothroyd) I would agree.
  (Sir Edward Heath) I agree.

Mr Stunell

  193. This is perhaps particularly to you, Sir Edward. Having chaired twice the election of Speakers, do you think there is any scope for considering any change in the role of the Father of the House in conducting those elections? Were there any issues you learnt from or messages you would want to give this Committee about a future occasion?
  (Sir Edward Heath) I do not see any particular reason for a change, but it is up to the House again. We always had a clerk for most of my time at the House, and then they switched over to the Father of the House and they may want to switch back. I do not think they will, in fact. I think they felt that putting that responsibility on the clerk was not entirely fair on the clerk. I had a large number of discussion with the clerks in between the Speaker's announcement about her retirement and the time we had the actual vote, because they have the law at their fingertips and if one did want to change it at all they could say, "Well, there you are changing the law". When I suspended the sitting of the House for natural reasons, it was because the clerks insisted upon it. They said that I could not just nip out for two or three minutes.
  (Lady Boothroyd) Of course not!

Mr Illsley

  194. Sir Edward, how did you formulate within your own mind that you would call Michael Martin as first candidate during that election? Did you seek advice from the clerks, soundings from groups of members or usual channels, or were you simply aware of the feeling of the House that Michael Martin had the majority?
  (Sir Edward Heath) You mean how did I put them in the order in which I did?

  195. Yes. The argument is that, in the past, the first nominee was actually voted on first until the procedure was changed and there was some argument that perhaps the first candidate nominated, who was not voted on until the very end of the procedure, perhaps is in a stronger position than those members who are nominated as amendments to the substantive motion.
  (Sir Edward Heath) I do not think that applies. I do not think that, if a member nominated was in a stronger position and was not put in first place, he will get through. It will not be the first place that affects it, if that is the point you are getting at, which I think it is. Looking at it, however, to me it was very clear that the one I put first was the strongest. Here was a party with a majority of 173, and you could not expect them to do anything other than go for the one which they wanted. Now, there was a great mistake in our people thinking that there ought be a change from the Labour side to the Tory side. You cannot expect a party which has just got that majority to come in and say, "Yes, of course we want this small minority to have the Speakership"—it is just not practical politics—but the time will come when they say, "This has been long enough now", but that will be some time yet. That was my judgment about it. To be perfectly honest, however, I wanted to get all the nominations to give them the opportunity of standing up and facing the voters so, when I worked out the order, it was an order of parties but also an order of individuals. I was rather surprised, as the election went on, that some of them still stayed in but one or two said to me afterwards, "Well, it was an experience we could not get any other time anywhere else, and we shall never try and get it again; we are glad to have had one chance".
  (Lady Boothroyd) May I make a comment on that? I cannot obviously answer for Sir Edward as to why he chose to put one particular candidate first but let me say that I think, whichever candidate he put first or last, the result would have been no different than it was on 23 October, quite frankly.

Mr Efford

  196. Sir Edward, given your last answer, do you still feel there is a role for the Father of the House in terms of the procedure determining the order in which people speak in the House? Even if we were to go for a ballot of people speaking in the House, there still would be an order of play. Would there be a role for the Father of the House in that or should we move to some other system such as drawing lots?
  (Sir Edward Heath) As far as the election is concerned?

  197. Yes, and the order of the election.
  (Sir Edward Heath) No. I think it is perfectly clear. As I say, I took the liberty of putting the candidates in that order. Somebody has to do it and you cannot spend a lot of time casting lots as to the order they are going to be in before you then cast lots for them to be Speaker. Time is limited; we took up over seven hours as it was. No, I think you can leave calling people to the Father of the House and I think, if he is wise, he will try to make sure that everybody stands a chance of coming in. As I said, however, I do not think this is going to happen for some time to come. There will be very many fewer people who will want to go into this contest and, if the people inside the parties are sensible, they will get hold of their own people and say, "Look, we cannot have all of you standing in. Let's work out whom we really do want".

Chairman

  198. If there is a ballot, surely it is likely that on the ballot people will be entered in alphabetical order and, if there then is a speech from each candidate—however many there are—they would be taken, I presume, in alphabetical order, rather than on this occasion when you had a much more difficult task?
  (Sir Edward Heath) Then they will all become hyphenated.
  (Lady Boothroyd) I think Sir Edward had a very difficult task to perform which he did tremendously well on the 23rd, but I think what you are saying, Chairman, is that there would be a ballot paper—and let me give my view, if I may—with the surname in alphabetical order and that is how it would be done. Then I would like to see all candidates speak perhaps one after the other and the vote taken, with no sponsors in between saying what good chaps they are and what wonderful spouses they have.

  199. Is this agreed by your colleagues?
  (Lord Weatherill) Yes.
  (Sir Edward Heath) No.


 
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