Select Committee on Procedure Second Report

Options for change

31. The Chairman of Ways and Means, Sir Alan Haselhurst, told us that in his view the present system of appointment had served the House well, though he recognised that the process was not a transparent one.[21] The Clerk of the House invited the Committee to consider whether "elaboration of a very simple procedure is a price worth paying to improve a system which, though not without occasional problems, has not really caused much difficulty over many years".[22]

32. We agree that the present process has operated relatively smoothly, particularly since the creation of a third Deputy post in 1971—though it is worth pointing out that there is some anecdotal evidence suggesting that there have from time to time been difficulties below the surface, sometimes arising from wrangling within parties. There is also evidence of some dissatisfaction with the present process, particularly among the smaller parties represented in the House. Mr Roy Beggs MP, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, urged that the 'usual channels' should make greater efforts to consult with the smaller parties in advance of names being put before the House. He indicated that if other parties were not sufficiently consulted on the decision-making process in future, they might seek to divide the House.[23]

33. One significant argument against the existing arrangements is that they are insufficiently transparent; they rely very heavily on assessments made by the whips of the two main parties; and they give the House as a whole little realistic opportunity to consider the nominees.

34. We have considered a number of possible reforms to the existing arrangements and tested them against our assessment of the requirements of the House.


35. This inquiry arose out of the inquiry undertaken by our predecessor Committee into the election of a Speaker, the central recommendation of which—subsequently endorsed by the House—was that the Speaker should be elected by secret ballot.[24] We have considered whether there is a case for the House instituting a similarly formalised system of election to Deputy Speakerships, either by secret ballot of the whole House or by indirect procedures involving party nominations.

36. Election of Deputies by secret ballot has, on the surface at least, obvious attractions. Candidates for Deputy Speaker posts could submit themselves openly to the judgement of their fellow Members, and those Members would be able to vote without fear of recriminations from the Whips or from the successful candidates.

37. The main objection to such a system is that it could not be relied upon to deliver either the present balance between Government and Opposition benches, which is generally considered desirable, nor a group of individuals capable of working as a close-knit team enjoying the confidence of the Speaker—which we consider is essential.[25]

38. There are also objections on grounds of practicality. The balloting process at the start of a Parliament could only begin once the election of the Speaker had concluded—because if that election were contested, it would be reasonable to assume that unsuccessful candidates might wish to stand for election as Deputy Speakers. To arrange three further consecutive ballots would be also be cumbersome, particularly as those candidates unsuccessful in a ballot for one post would be entitled to be entered in the ballot for the next one.

39. Another option would be to determine the desired party balance of the Speaker's team immediately the Speaker had been elected, and delegate to the respective parties the decision as to nomination of candidates. This could be done in various ways. Internal party procedures could range from formal consultation of the back-bench membership by the Chief Whip to a full-blown system of election. Whatever the method chosen for arriving at a name, in each case that nomination would be subject to a confirmatory motion on the floor of the House. A further alternative would be for a party to submit a slate of candidates for the post they were allocated, and for the House then to choose between the candidates on the slate.

40. A specific proposal put forward by the Liberal Democrat representatives in our informal meeting with them was that posts might be allocated among the parties in accordance with their proportions in the House. They envisaged applying a mathematical formula similar to that used by a number of local councils to determine the party which should nominate a candidate to a particular office.

41. The effect of the proposals in the previous two paragraphs would be to formalise the informal convention that members of the Speaker's team are drawn equally from Government and Opposition benches. Making an explicit determination of which party would be entitled to nominate to which post might in the short term seem an attractive proposition. In ensuring that the balance between the parties was maintained, it would remove some of the difficulties associated with an entirely open election by the House. Parliamentary party memberships would be consulted on the candidates in a more open, and arguably more transparent, fashion than at present.

42. However, it could also be argued that the current, informal arrangements have the merit of greater flexibility. For instance, they would enable the appointment of a particularly well-suited candidate from one of the smaller parties, in a way which might not be possible if a more mechanistic process of determining party representation were to be adopted. The proposal that parties should put forward nominations to be decided upon by the whole House might also be attended with disadvantages. For instance, it is not inconceivable that a nomination by an Opposition party might be voted down by the members of the majority party.

43. The various proposals for formal choice of candidates by parties are also subject to the criticism which can be applied to a system of election by the whole House, namely that they do not, and cannot, take into account the need to create a unified team of Deputies who can work easily with each other and with the Speaker. We believe that this is a great strength of the existing arrangements. We support the decision of the House last year to institute a system of election of the Speaker by secret ballot, but we do not believe that this logically entails that a similar system should be adopted in relation to the Deputy Speakers. The two cases are significantly different: the Deputies' role is precisely that of deputising for the Speaker, and a paramount requirement is that they should enjoy the confidence of the Speaker and work harmoniously as a team headed by him or her. This in turn entails not only some degree of private consultation between the 'usual channels' and the Speaker in advance of nomination, but that decisions are made on the candidates not solely as individuals but in relation to each other. The present system has the flexibility to enable sensitive and 'joined-up' assessments of candidates' personal qualities to be made. In our view the calibre of the individual Deputy Speakers appointed in recent years, and their ability to work as a team, indicates that the present system is broadly effective. We therefore do not recommend that it should be replaced by a system of election by ballot or one based on formal nominations by particular parties. That is not to say that the existing arrangements are not open to improvement; we make a number of recommendations in this regard in the next section of the report.


44. We are satisfied that the 'usual channels' make a genuine effort to ensure that the names to be put forward have broad support within their parties and across the whole House. However, what is not clear is the extent to which smaller parties and backbenchers are actually consulted about this. As we have seen, there are some indications of discontent that the process of consultation is too limited. One conditioning factor is that the process of consultation may have to take place rapidly. At the start of a Parliament this will be during the swearing-in period between the election of a Speaker and the State Opening. Unforeseen circumstances—an unexpected defeat in a safe seat, a sudden illness, or intra-party complications—can lead to 'short-listed' nominations having to be reviewed in a matter of hours. The Chairman of Ways and Means commented that in 1997 the press had reported opposition in the Labour Party to a name being canvassed for a Deputy Speakership, and that by the time the motion was put before the House another Member was preferred (he inferred from this that "the closed process is obviously not impenetrable").[26] Candidates themselves may have to make decisions at very short notice: in addition to Sir Alan's experiences, recounted above, one academic study reports anecdotal evidence of a Member being called in to see the Chief Whip one evening before dinner and being offered the job of Chairman of Ways and Means on the spot, with less than two hours to mull over the offer and decide.[27]

45. Notwithstanding the inevitable time constraints, we do believe it would be feasible for wider consultations to be carried out. We recommend that the 'usual channels' should consult a representative sample of backbench Members and take soundings of the views of the smaller parties before finalising their decision on names to be put before the House.


46. As we have seen, motions for the appointment of Deputy Speakers at the beginning of a Parliament, and those to fill vacancies during a Parliament, are customarily made without notice. The names to be put to the House may be an open secret to a small number of Members, but the House at large is given no advance indication of the decisions it will be invited to take.

47. There is a procedural obstacle to giving notice of a motion to appoint Deputy Speakers at the start of a Parliament. This is that no Order Paper is issued, or can be issued, for the day of State Opening. The appointment of deputies cannot be deferred beyond that day as the Speaker's commitments require that a deputy be in place and able to take the Chair that afternoon.

48. This is not an insurmountable difficulty. One possibility is that the Government could nominate a senior backbencher, for example the most senior returning member of the Chairmen's Panel not nominated as Deputy Speaker, to be appointed as temporary Deputy Speaker for a short, stipulated period, in order to allow time for notice of an appointment motion to be given. An alternative and simpler solution would be for the Speaker, at a suitable point during the swearing-in of Members, to give the House an informal indication from the Chair that the Government was expected to move a motion to appoint a named individual before the Debate on the Address. Copies of the Speaker's brief statement could be posted in the lobbies and placed in the Vote Office.

49. Under the present system, Members are at leave to oppose a motion, or seek to move a manuscript amendment substituting another name for that proposed.[28] It might be argued that if notice of a motion were to be given, this would act as an encouragement to Members to seek to amend the motion or oppose it, which would be undesirable. A 'worst case scenario' would be one in which there was a proliferation of candidates and a lengthy debate on amendments to the motion, such as took place on the motion to elect a Speaker in October 2000, when under the old rules 12 candidates for the Chair put themselves forward. However, as our predecessors commented in their report on election of a Speaker, this situation arose because of a breakdown in the previous conventions governing such elections, under which the 'usual channels' were effectively entrusted by the House with the task of winnowing out candidates with limited support, and presenting the House with a choice of, if not a single candidate, then at most two. The Committee commented that this attitude, which they characterised as one of 'benevolent paternalism', was "one that now appears to command no support within the House: none of our witnesses considered that the 'usual channels' should have any formal role to play in the choice of a Speaker".[29] We do not detect a similar antipathy to the role of the 'usual channels' in the appointment of Deputy Speakers. We have commented above on the way in which we believe they can play a valid role in identifying suitable candidates and undertaking the negotiations necessary to ensure that the names to be proposed are acceptable to the House. We believe that, provided the 'usual channels' carry out this task conscientiously and on a basis of widespread consultation within the House, the names they put forward are likely to command the assent of a majority of Members.

50. We do not underestimate the potential embarrassment for the Government of a debate and a defeat on the floor of the House on a House of Commons matter such as this, if the Government's motion were to be opposed. We therefore anticipate that obliging the Government to give notice of motions for appointment would contribute to ensuring that the soundings taken by the 'usual channels' were robust and realistic, and that prior agreement would be reached between the parties on names likely to be acceptable to the House as a whole.

51. We recommend that notice of motions for the appointment of the Chairman of Ways and Means, and the First and Second Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means, should be given a minimum of one sitting day in advance; and that at the start of a Parliament, where formal notice is not possible, informal notice of such a motion should be given by the Government to the Speaker, to be communicated to the House in advance of the day of State Opening. We further recommend that the mover of the Government's motion (usually the Leader of the House) should in moving the motion briefly outline the consultations which have taken place and give some indication of the extent to which the nomination has cross-party support.

21   Appendix 1, Ev 1. Back

22   Ev 6, para. 19. Back

23   Appendix 3, Ev 7. Back

24   The House amended its Standing Orders on 22 March 2001: CJ (2000-01) 254. Back

25   Appendix 1, Ev 1. Back

26   Appendix 1, Ev 1. Back

27   Seward, Unsung Heroes, p. 22. Back

28   When Dr King attempted to amend the motion put to the House in January 1962, he did so by means of a manuscript amendment, which was accepted by the Chair. Back

29   Procedure Committee, Election of a Speaker, para. 39. Back

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Prepared 22 April 2002