Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 208 - 219)




  208. Can I welcome to the Procedure Committee the Clerk of the House, Mr William McKay, and apologise to you, first of all, for keeping you waiting. Part of our progress this afternoon has been interrupted by a division on the floor of the House and I have to say we have been undertaking some formal discussion and a number of issues took rather longer than we expected. Can I thank you very much, Mr McKay, for coming to give evidence to us as part of the inquiries that we are carrying out into the procedures governing the election of a Speaker. The historical situation I do not need to explain to you—you could obviously give me greater chapter and verse than I would be aware of—but can I ask you, in your view, what the strengths and weaknesses are of the present system of electing the Speaker of the House of Commons, and would we be right to conclude that, in your view, the current system is no longer suited to present circumstances?

  (Mr McKay) Mr Chairman, thank you. May I preface what I am going to say with one single observation on my paper, which is to emphasise the depth of the House's understanding of the office of Speaker. It goes back a long way. The office and the nature of the office are intimately connected with the method of election, obviously through canvassing and so on, and so changes in the method of election are worth consideration by the Committee and by the House in light of that potential knock-on effect on the nature of the office. That was what I wanted to say first. You asked, Mr Chairman, about the strengths and weaknesses of the present system: I think it would be generally agreed that the weakness is that the system could not cope with the multiplicity of candidates. A system which had never had to cope with anything more really than two possibilities—and maybe three more in the background—was asked to handle thirteen. While it did so, I suspect there were two views in the House as to how acceptable that was whereas, over previous years as you can see from my paper, unease with the method of election was building up but only slowly. What was new, therefore, and different about the election last year was, I am sure, above all, the number of candidates and the weakness was the inability to deal with that except by taking time between 2.30 pm and 9.30 pm. The only other comment I might make in that area is that it is very much, as I think other witnesses have said, a matter for the decision of Members, whether in the Committee or in the House, how much importance you give to the time spent in doing this.

  209. Do you think that a day's debate on the floor of the House is excessive to deal with the election?
  (Mr McKay) I really think it is for Members to say how important they think it is. I do not myself see the House ever taking longer than it took on 23 October—I do not think so—but the Canadians did it in four hours on Monday. Their House is half the size of ours; I do not know how many candidates there initially were but I suspect about half of ours. It is a judgment. Was four hours too long? Was seven hours too long? Members will have to make up their minds and adjust the election proceedings accordingly.

Mr Forth

  210. I would be interested in the Clerk's view about whether or not a ballot should be secret or open. This is obviously going to be one of the most important considerations we have to make and a lot of other matters tend to flow both into that and from it. I think the Committee would appreciate the Clerk's expert and detached view on that to add to our deliberations.
  (Mr McKay) All I could do would be to sum up, I think, the broad arguments on both sides. On the side of a secret ballot is the concern that I know—I read in the evidence and I know in any case—is felt by some members of the House, that a vote cast against a Speaker is remembered. Whether this is paranoia, which it may be, or whether it ever had any foundation I do not know, but I can see how the concern arises and that would certainly point in the direction of a secret ballot. If you are going to go for a secret ballot, however, I think you have explain what is so special about this decision, leaving aside the personal relationships, which makes it distinct from any other decision the House takes. I do not think it is for me to answer that question. I see my responsibilities extending only to arranging whatever you and the House want to do. These are the arguments, it seems to me—secrecy or openness. It is a choice, and it is a choice incidentally that I discovered only recently that the House of Representatives in Washington once made in perhaps an opposite direction. The Jeffersonian House voted by secret ballot and as long as ago as 1839 they said, "No, we are going to move to a roll call". Obviously these choices come up at random points in the history of any legislature and you just have to solve them, it seems to me, the way you feel.

  211. I think the deliberations in Committee have suggested that what makes the election of the Speaker distinctive is that it is a matter for the House itself very largely and, since we are electing a Speaker to be absolutely impartial and to deal with matters in that way, on that basis it may be sufficiently unique to justify having a secret ballot as opposed to an open one. That is added to by the feeling amongst many members that, in order to make sure it was proof against improper influence by the whips or any other influences, a secret ballot is the only guaranteed way of doing that, and I would have thought just from my one experience that it is highly unlikely that a large number of voters take a very direct interest in the election of Speaker which I suspect they would see as largely and properly a matter for the House and for its members. One can, therefore, make a case for saying that the election of Speaker is sufficiently unique to justify a completely different treatment from that which has been traditionally followed in the House.
  (Mr McKay) Yes, I am sure you can make that case and, indeed, it is a case which has been made and accepted in legislatures outside the Anglo Saxon tradition from the French revolution onwards: that where you are making a personal selection for some office you do it in private, by secret ballot.

Mr Darvill

  212. We had evidence from Baroness Boothroyd yesterday in favour of an open ballot but, in supporting that point, she indicated that this would be a slippery slope—in other words, members may in the future on, say, moral issues or others be pressed to have a secret ballot and this is one reason why we should resist the secret ballot on this occasion. What do you think?
  (Mr McKay) It depends on your view of the unique character which Mr Forth was advancing for this decision. The only consideration I can put forward at this point is that I am not aware that any of the legislatures that have got a rule of secret ballot for nominations have been subject to the slippery slope. That is not to say that the House of Commons might not be different in this respect—as in many others.

Mr Stunell

  213. Can I move to a completely different point concerning the logistics of what might be implied, and obviously you are in a very expert position to give us advice on that. After a general election, what would you see as being the logical minimum timetable we could follow to get the new Speaker in post?
  (Mr McKay) The problem is that the date of the meeting of the new Parliament is fixed by the dissolution proclamation so, if the general election results were completed on the Friday, there would be no choice—the House would usually be summoned to the following Wednesday. That is the first practical problem. The second practical problem is obviously how can you allow for negotiations, the developing of support, just talking between Members to establish the strength of candidacies? Can you do that in the excited days between a general election and the summoning of the House when maybe—who knows—everyone's interest is on No 10 Downing Street and the formation of a government? I think after giving it a lot of consideration, if you think you can compress everything from the making of the nominations to the voting to the final result into one day then you can come back on the Wednesday. If however you are going to look for quite a lot of time—say half a day—before the nominations close and then, say, another half day between the closing of the nominations and the voting, then you really are into a two-day process—which has its logistical problems, obviously, but it can be done.

  214. What is the reality of what happens on that Wednesday? My memory of that is that we are not talking of significant business?
  (Mr McKay) You are electing a Speaker, that is all.

  215. But is there any procedural or legal reason why that should not be adjourned for a couple of days while we get our breath back, if it turns out we need to?
  (Mr McKay) But who is in the Chair?

  216. Who is in the Chair for the election of the Speaker? The Father of the House.
  (Mr McKay) Yes, but he is only in the Chair for that purpose—the election of the Speaker. You would have to adjust the Standing Order—it could be done—to make this possible.

  217. I am not suggesting we should but just in terms of the practicalities here it would be competent for us to have a Standing Order which gave the Chairmanship to the Father of the House, as at present, but gave him an additional item of business if required, and he would be able to adjourn the House for a period of X?
  (Mr McKay) Yes, especially if you set out in the Standing Order the broad framework of the electoral proceedings.

Mr Efford

  218. On that same point, are we not in a similar situation after general elections as we were in at the end of the recess, when Betty Boothroyd resigned effectively at the end of the previous session, although she just went formally the day before, and we return for a new session of Parliament and under a new system where we have to have nominations, say countersigned by a dozen people? There is still that time lag, is there not, in which to assemble, for somebody to gather nominations and to hand them in? If we know the result of the election on the Friday, is it not possible that people could gather nominations in the intervening period given that only experienced members are really going to know what is going on around the election of the Speaker and, therefore, we could arrive with nominations on the first day and deal with it on that day, or is it that we have that one day that we come back for members to gather their nominations and then they have to be in and we deal with that business the following morning?
  (Mr McKay) As an official I do not know the answer to that. I do not know what it is like to be a Member between an election and the meeting of a new Parliament. I do not know how many Members are here. Obviously the neatest way of doing it would be, as you say, to rely on the Members who are experienced to get the nomination system going, and then perhaps before the voting to allow the candidates—but only the candidates—to address the House maybe with a ten-minute speech limit which would help the new Members to make some kind of judgment, and then vote. That way you could probably encompass the whole exercise in that one day and start swearing Members thereafter. In the case of a resignation or a death in mid-session, if that is the problem you are meeting, will you not have an added pressure of a government saying, "Get it done in one day, we do not want to lose any more business time"?

Mr Stunell

  219. Could I ask a procedural question? If there has been a general election and there is a Speakership vacancy, is it competent for members to vote in a successor under the current proceedings before they have been sworn in? Presumably it has to be.
  (Mr McKay) Yes.

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