Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 220 - 239)



  220. So there would be nothing to prevent that still being the case with the new procedure?
  (Mr McKay) That is true.


  221. I have one or two historical questions seeking your advice. Bearing in mind what happened in 1992 and again in 1997, do you think that this is a clear demonstration that the House is seeking to seize back from government the initiative in the choosing of a Speaker, and do you agree with that?
  (Mr McKay) I think this is an opportunity for the House to build on what has happened. It does seem to be a kind of paradox that whenever you read in the newspapers about the balance of power between legislative and executive it always comes out that the executive is in charge of the legislature, yet both the executive and the parties in this latest round of voting more or less explicitly backed off. Whatever you and the House want to put in place of the procedure on 23 October, it seems to me you have got a glorious opportunity to defend the situation in which the House now finds itself, and to make sure it is defended against all kinds of pressures—pressures of, for example, small majorities where a party was determined to take the Speakership, come hell or high water, to stamp its mark on the House immediately. Maybe that is the point that Mr Forth is making about secret ballots being the best defence.

  222. Particularly in 1992 Betty Boothroyd was not really the Government's choice of Speaker—Rt Hon Peter Brooke was—but Betty Boothroyd was proposed by a Conservative, John Biffen, and seconded by a Labour member, Gwynneth Dunwoody, and won it overwhelmingly. In this last election, Mr McKay, you are right—I think the government did back off although they did make certain views known to the House and to their members but Mr Martin was, again, elected overwhelmingly. So am I right in saying that the House in recent times has taken the initiative in seizing back from the usual channels—which is government—the choosing of its Speaker?
  (Mr McKay) Yes. I think the House certainly does seem to have that freedom.

  223. Do you think, too, that we are likely to see more contested elections in the near future?
  (Mr McKay) I really do not know. Common sense tells us, surely, that the number of candidates, as I said before, is unlikely to be as large as it was on 23 October but I cannot see anything which will, of its nature, diminish the field and keep the field at two or three.

  224. Could we move on to one or two other interesting matters? We have received some views from witnesses that the procedure that goes with the election of Speaker could be changed, perhaps to emphasise the primacy of the Commons, and I refer not to the bringing of the Speaker from his or her seat to the Chair but the way that the Speaker elect proceeds to the Lords to advise the Queen as the Head of State of their election and seeking, it is my understanding, the approval of the Lords Commissioners acting on behalf, in this case, of Her Majesty the Queen. Do you see that as a procedure that might be changed?
  (Mr McKay) It is a matter for the Committee and the House, Mr Chairman. The only consideration I would throw into the balance at the moment is, in a new Parliament, the Speaker Elect goes up and claims the House's privileges. That, I think, is of symbolic importance—perhaps more than symbolic importance. Maybe it would be of less symbolic importance were we to get, as the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege recommended, a privilege statute. Failing that, I think you would want to find another way of establishing the position of the House in the constitution and the House's privileges. I do not say it could be done; I cannot see what it would be; but that is a consideration.

  225. So what you are saying to the Committee is that, unless there is this privileges statute, really it is appropriate that this ceremonial, particular way of proceeding continues?
  (Mr McKay) It is an easy way of achieving something; the alternative might not be so easy. I cannot myself at the moment see another way of securing the privileges from the Crown.

Mr Efford

  226. Is there not an assumption there that privileges can be taken away? Does this need to claim the privileges date from a time when perhaps the monarch might want to come in and take privileges away, and is this not a formality that is lost in time?
  (Mr McKay) Yes, in one sense that is true. In another, privileges are part of the law and perhaps because they are unwritten one has to be, I think, rather careful in tinkering with them at their very basis—ie, where they have their origin.

  227. I am intrigued by this because virtually everyone who has given evidence—or I think I am right in saying everyone—has said that this should not happen; this is a matter for Parliament; Parliament selects its Speaker and it does not need to present its Speaker anywhere; it just notifies people of its decision, and that is a matter of the sovereignty of Parliament. Yesterday, two former speakers, Lord Weatherill and Baroness Boothroyd, and the Father of the House all trivialised it and said that it was not even an issue—"I do not know why you are concerned about it, young man". When we come to discussing it, however, it comes up against a great deal of resistance and does hit the nub of the standing of Parliament and its ascendancy over the House of Lords. Perhaps we can do it another way and invite the Lords down to us?
  (Mr McKay) There may be another way of doing it. The only one which occurs to me is a thoroughgoing privilege statute, as recommended by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege.


  228. I think this is important. Are there aspects of any balloting process where it might be more appropriate for members rather than clerks to be involved, for example, in the verification of results? I think this is important and, as Clerk of the House, you must have a view on this.
  (Mr McKay) I think, Mr Chairman, this would be entirely appropriate. There would be no difficulty surely in drafting a standing order which said that the counting of the ballots is conducted under the supervision of whoever is in the Chair—the Father of the House or whoever. That would authorise the people doing the actual counting to say, "Look, we have a problem. What do you think we should do?". It would authorise them to go at the end of their counting process to the elected Member and say, "To the best of our knowledge and ability, this is what the result is. We have checked it and checked it again and this is what it seems to be". There would be no difficulty in that whatever.

  229. You do not think you might have a situation where there could be two or three ballot papers where the intention of the member of Parliament might not be clear—you know how it is with a general election—and then these so-called spoiled or doubtful papers are drawn to the attention of all the candidates and the deputy returning officer will say, "Do you accept that that vote has gone to Mr Clive Efford", or "Mr Eric Forth"?
  (Mr McKay) If the Member who is presiding wished to do that, it seems to me perfectly possible, if you draft the standing order appropriately, that he should.

  230. Do you have any view as Clerk of the House how long you think members should be given to cast their vote in a ballot?
  (Mr McKay) I think, Mr Chairman, that is a hard question to answer without knowing what kind of physical arrangements we are making. Now the Canadians, on Monday, had an arrangement with booths and a ballot box in the chamber. Members were given a ballot paper, they filled it in and put it in the box, and there was a check by clerks in the chamber, so the whole thing was done in the chamber. If, here, you are to recommend a ballot with the ballot box in the lobby, then maybe you would want to allow longer than the Canadians did to issue the ballot papers. I was looking at the Canadian proceedings and each of their five votes on Monday took about twenty minutes—that is with a House of 301—but, as I say, that was in a very controlled situation in the chamber. If we said, "Come and get your ballot papers in the Table Office", that would add some time to the proceedings. If Members then had to take them, fill them in, bring them to the lobby and put them in the box or boxes provided in the lobby, that would probably take them longer than the Canadian twenty minutes.

  231. Do you think it would be appropriate for the ballot papers to be available in the division lobbies with appropriate staff available? If everyone was going to go to the table office, I can see such a division taking a very considerable length of time.
  (Mr McKay) No problems would be raised by that at all, Mr Chairman, except that we would need to ensure, just as we do in deferred divisions, that there were no mix-ups and that one member/one vote was clearly establishable afterwards: that it was simply impossible for anyone to have cast two votes.

Mr Darvill

  232. Consideration has been given to the fact that each candidate has to have a certain amount of nominations. Have you any thoughts about the procedural side of that, and whether there are any practical difficulties?
  (Mr McKay) There are two plain issues which the Committee will need to consider, it seems to me, in connection with the nominations. The first is how many should be the minimum. In that case, I would myself say something like fifteen. I would be anxious if the House wished to know, in detail, how many nominations any candidate received because I can see a situation where a candidate gives a nomination form to 300 members of his party who all then send it to the Table Office, and we have to publish 300 names as nominated. I think you could say there should be fifteen names and once there were fifteen it does not matter how many more there are. Fifteen is the qualifying number and the rest of the nominations can be abandoned. The other issue is do you want to say that, among the fifteen, there must be a member elected to that House from more than one party. That is a matter of choice.

  233. Do you see any practical issues on that second point?
  (Mr McKay) No, none at all, and when we got our quota of fifteen for any Member we would just put his or her name in an alphabetical series on a ballot paper and that would be that.


  234. Do you think this Committee should lay down a stipulation that a candidate must have cross-party support? Is it not perhaps usurping the right of individual members, because the House will decide itself who they think is the best candidate? Should we therefore, as it were, lay down that among the candidates—and I think the figure we might agree would be twelve rather than fifteen—there should be one, two or three members of parties other than the party that that particular candidate represents?
  (Mr McKay) The only authority that can bind the House is the House itself, so it would be perfectly competent in my view for the House to say, "We will bind ourselves to build in some bipartisan support as an essential ingredient of any nomination".

  235. You do not think that the House or this Committee might put in a paragraph or a conclusion that clearly the House is likely to look more favourably upon a candidate who has cross-party support, rather than stipulate that that candidate has to have cross-party support?
  (Mr McKay) I think this is a decision, Mr Chairman, in the context of grasping the freedom the House now has and defending it from any kind of pressure in future. If you think there is a likelihood of political party pressure becoming very strong on a Speakership, or if you think equally that such strong pressure should be resisted, then build in the bipartisan requirement.

Mr Forth

  236. These are deep and murky waters, I think, not least because it just so happens that the Speaker we have just elected did not fill that criteria, but I am more worried that the term "bipartisan", unless pinned down fairly precisely, could mean almost anything or almost nothing.
  (Mr McKay) I would not use it in drafting. Just as we do in some other standing orders, we do talk about Members returned to that House representing "a party" and other Members representing "another party". I would not use the word "bipartisan": I was only using it for shorthand to say "members from more than one party".

  237. I am relieved to hear that because the obvious immediately springs to mind—namely, how much additional validity would it give if the nominators were primarily from the Labour party with one SDLP to give it the figleaf of respectability, or all the Conservatives and Martin Bell? One can think of a number of examples and I am not sure how much further forward this takes us.
  (Mr McKay) If you wish to avoid, surely, what might be regarded as a token move in this direction, then increase the number of parties that have to be represented in the nomination.

Mr Drew

  238. On these points, the danger is the more you contrive particular outcomes the more likely you are to get bloody-minded members who will do their damnedest, rather than voting for or against an individual, to vote for or against the system. I think we have to be very careful. Would you agree that, whatever system we come up with, the system must be as transparent as possible and as efficient as we can possibly make it, and as reasonable in terms of the outcome so that members, even if they did not vote for the candidate who wins, can feel that they took part in a legitimate process?
  (Mr McKay) Yes, I am sure that is right. The trouble is that, while these are unexceptionable aims, the devil is in the detail. For example, before the last Speakership election, was it not the case that the received wisdom was that the best place to be if you were a candidate was the first amendment. However, that was only an extrapolation from what happened in 1992 and it did not work this time. Surely the same would be said whatever method of election you choose and the House accepts. This most sophisticated electorate will read a great deal into it and they will try to learn from one example and extrapolate it to a later occasion, and it will not work any more than the "The place to be is this first amendment" worked. Of course transparency and efficiency is wanted but these are still murky waters.

Mr Efford

  239. I just wonder if you have any feelings or would like to indicate whether you feel that the Speakership should flip flop from side to side and whether you would comment on the tradition that some people claim has existed for an infinite amount of time that it should alternate from one side of the House to the other? How much do you think that influenced people in the way they voted in the last Speakership election?
  (Mr McKay) The truth is that the Speakership does move across the House but only on a very long timescale.

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