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House of Commons

Monday 22 June 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Election of Speaker

The right hon. Alan Williams, the Member for Swansea, West, took the Chair (Standing Order No. 1(1)).

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): I have to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the resignation of the right hon. Michael Martin, lately Speaker of this House, gives leave to the House to proceed forthwith to the election of a new Speaker.

Mr. Alan Williams (in the Chair): The House will now proceed to the election of a new Speaker in accordance with the provisions of Standing Order No. 1B. A note for Members explaining the proceedings was published four weeks ago. In a moment, I will call the candidates to address the House in the order in which I drew their names by lot earlier this morning. The order of speaking was published earlier today. When all candidates have addressed the House, we will proceed to the first ballot.

2.31 pm

Margaret Beckett (Derby, South) (Lab): Mr. Williams, when the House was first broadcast, Mike Yarwood, the political impersonator, when asked for his reaction, said, “I hope I never have to face an audience like that.”

I am very conscious today of facing an electorate who know our strengths as well as we do and our weaknesses rather better. One of mine is a deep reluctance to answer only yes or no to a question that I think calls for a more thoughtful response. So as I have made clear, I do not have any problem with electing those who chair Select Committees, but I would like us to give thought to whether and how we could take account of opinion among Select Committee members themselves.

I have no objection, in fact, to any of the ideas for change and reform which are being floated, but I have had experience of making reforms in this House—setting up Westminster Hall and allowing for a TV point in Central Lobby or for tape recorders in the Press Gallery. All were controversial in their day. There is rarely only one view; in fact, you are lucky if there are not 600. It is the House that must decide, and a way must be found to take the House with you. The Speaker cannot—and should not—attempt to drive the House, but nor should he or she be an obstacle. I pledge myself, if elected, to facilitate desired change.

Today we face unprecedented and uniquely difficult circumstances—a two-way crisis of confidence. The public have lost confidence in us and the confidence of many Members has been shaken or even lost. No one person can resolve these problems. The challenge is one that the House as a whole must address. But it is just the start for the next Speaker.

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Independent financial regulation would be opposed, I think, by few—but the devil will be in the detail. There is good reason why our forebears fought for and guarded the freedoms of this House. A different relationship with the upper House, should that be agreed, would certainly require delicate and careful handling from the Speaker. And while I have never predicted the outcome of a general election, and do not intend to start now, many political commentators predict a hung Parliament or something close to it. New, smaller parties may be elected—or even others without party to sit alongside the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor).

Having watched admiringly Speaker Selwyn Lloyd handle just such a House, I recognise how delicate and how potentially controversial the Speaker’s role becomes. The Speaker must be seen to be fair-minded, even-handed and able to command a degree of consent and confidence across the House.

I have been asked particularly to address three issues about my own candidacy: my attitude to reform, with which I have already dealt, whether it is the Opposition’s turn, and my own background and experience. Last time, I myself advocated the notion that it was the Opposition’s turn for the Chair and was corrected by political historians, who pointed out that the speakership had in fact always gone with the majority party of the day, except once. Speaker Boothroyd was that one exception. I could not help noticing that on that occasion, as so often, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) demonstrated his independence and voted for, rather than against, her.

That brings me to my own record. I have extensive experience chairing committees and conferences, including Committees in this House. I have had to try to communicate obscure and complex issues in a way that illuminates them for the lay person, and I have experience of driving through needed change. I have never been afraid to speak truth to power, wherever power may be found, and as those who know me well testify, I have always been my own woman, and a House of Commons woman at that.

So let me assure you, with all the force at my command, that such skills as I have acquired in my years in this House would, if elected, be at the service of this House and all its Members, and that I am particularly conscious of the Speaker’s responsibility to Back Benchers. But the greatest task that faces us all is to convey afresh to the people of our country that we come here, as we all do, to serve their interests rather than our own. I shall work to help achieve that, whatever judgment the House makes today.

2.37 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett).

Mr. Williams, it is good to see you presiding over this new procedure for electing a Speaker—a procedure introduced because the last one took too long. [Laughter.]

Being Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee for eight years, a job that Robin Cook asked me to do, may not be the platform of choice from which to launch a bid for the support of one’s colleagues, but perhaps more than almost any other job in the House, it calls for total impartiality and an imperative to be fair.

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On impartiality, I have always been in the Conservative party, not run by the Conservative party. [Laughter.] On fairness, one of my concerns about recent events, with the anger about a failed expenses system exposed by the media, has been the emergence of a bidding war to be tough that risks losing sight of the basic principles of justice that this House has always defended. I want to see a House of Commons that regains its self-confidence. I want a more independent House of Commons, a more effective House of Commons, a more relevant House of Commons and a more accessible House of Commons. I want to see the terms of trade tilted away from the Executive and back to Parliament. Government have nothing to fear from that at all. If we raise our game, they will have to raise theirs, and the country will benefit.

So what might be different? I hope our proceedings might be brisker—shorter questions, shorter answers, shorter speeches. The heart of the Chamber might beat a little faster. I believe that we can use the time of the Chamber, and our own time, more effectively. We could trade those thinly attended Opposition day debates, when the Whips come into the Tea Room and tell us about speaking opportunities, for more topical statements, enabling us better to hold the Government to account and reconnect with the public.

We could build time in the Chamber around time in Select Committees, instead of the other way around. The time of colleagues is precious. I would pilot indicative speaking lists, where relevance would have the same importance as seniority. I would like to see some Select Committee Chairmen present their reports here in the Chamber of the House of Commons, and so challenge the Government monopoly on statements. That would be hugely symbolic of a Chamber in which we should be joint landlords with the Government and not tenants.

To some of those ideas terms and conditions apply. The Speaker is more referee than player. The House must decide whether it wants to shift the balance of power. I believe that there is a window of opportunity in the remaining months of this Parliament, and in that debate the Speaker can act as a catalyst. The Speaker should be neutral when neutrality is required; he should exercise influence when influence is required; and he should show leadership when leadership is required. The Speaker should look outwards as well as inwards. He should speak about the House of Commons, rather than for the House of Commons, and be much less detached than tradition has required. After listening to the tributes to Michael Martin on Wednesday, I would add another quality: at times, the Speaker should be a friend.

Last year, there was a run on the banks, which lie at the heart of our prosperity. This year, there has been a run on the Commons, which lies at the heart of our democracy. In both cases, imprudent behaviour by a few, loose regulation and inadequate supervision led to a loss of public confidence and an anger at those in charge. There was systemic failure, and those who did no wrong were caught in the backlash of a loss of institutional reputation. In both cases, we need to address that anger and restore that confidence by changes at the top, better regulation, transparency and a change of culture. We have recapitalised the banks; we now need
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to recapitalise the House of Commons. We have left behind the age of deference; we need to arrive at the age of earned respect.

None of us can do what is needed on our own. In his resignation speech, Michael Martin said that we are at our best when we are united. I hope that I could achieve that unity, build on the resilience of the House and help win back the confidence and trust of those we represent.

2.42 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Mr. Williams, I think I am unique in this contest. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] What is unique is that I propose myself as an interim Speaker, rather than as a permanent or long-term appointee. The reason I do that is that I have become convinced that what we need, between now and the next election—after the next election will be too late—is the restoration of the reputation of this House with the public. If we go into the election without that achieved, the consequences for our democracy could be considerable. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves what sort of Speaker could achieve that in the time available.

In these extraordinary circumstances—I would not have put myself forward in any other circumstances, given that I am definitely retiring at the next election—we need somebody who is provenly capable of connecting with the general public, whom the public know, whom the public by and large trust, and whom the public recognise and are willing to listen to. I believe that, perhaps by rather vulgar means, I have come to fit that bill. That is why, among these very trusty old serving senators this afternoon, I put myself before you as the rather vulgar tribune—I have been longing to say that to those on the Benches opposite for a long time. [ Laughter. ]

In addition to restoring Parliament’s reputation with the public—let me say that I do not believe that that means that the Speaker has to be appearing in television studios up and down the land—the Speaker needs to be more visible outside the House over the next few months than has hitherto been normally associated with the role. But in addition to that function, it is crucial that the new Speaker does what he or she can—it will be limited by the will of the House, and having seen some of the manifestos that have been put forth, I rather think that we are trying to elect a supreme dictator this afternoon, which is rather unlikely—to rebalance power from the Executive to Back Benchers. Whenever there is a speakership election, all the candidates put forward that notion. Not always is there a successful implementation. But I have not come late to that view; I have stood by it throughout my 22 years in this House.

Under the Conservative Administration, I actually teamed up with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)— [ Laughter. ]when we opposed, albeit unsuccessfully, a raft of measures that reduced Back-Bench rights, including the removal of our right—which I had exercised on one previous occasion—to put down business motions before the House. That was just the first of a long series of measures that have taken away power from Back Benchers and concentrated it very heavily on the Executive, of whatever party.

Under this Administration, I led a sit-in. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) took part in sit-ins in his youth; I came to them in middle age. I was
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moved so to do because the Government were bringing a Bill out of Committee, half of which had not even been examined. I believe that one of the consequences of the concentration of power on the Front Bench is that, out there and in here, we are being governed by increasing tranches of legislation that have never been examined, let alone voted on, by Parliament. That has to be wrong, and it is an urgent task for the Speaker to try to persuade people outside that we are not irrelevant and that we have a real function to perform.

I believe that it is important that whoever is Speaker will not only help to clean up the mess and be seen to do so, but that they will, in doing so, bear one thing in mind: no matter how much we may tighten the system and come down on those who have erred, we should always have it as a core principle that people of modest means should not be deterred from entering this House. If we fail in that, I do not think it grandiose to say that we will have failed democracy. I have been up and down the broadcast media over the past few weeks—before I even thought of putting in a bid for this post—defending the principle that we must have adequate remuneration and assistance if people of all means and very few means are to be able to enter this place.

I am very honoured indeed that enough people have asked me and indicated their support for me for me to feel able to stand here and say what I have said this afternoon. Whoever is the Speaker must have broad support on both sides of the House, and in all parties, or they will not be a Speaker who starts with the good will of the House of Commons. I believe that I have broad-based support; how much has yet to be seen.

2.49 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): It is good to have you in the Chair, Mr. Williams, not just because of your awesome seniority, which makes even me feel like a bit of a newcomer, but because of what you do to promote the work and independence of Select Committees. You developed the questioning of the Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee, which is an effective investigative process rather than the shouting match we so often get at Prime Minister’s questions. You will recall, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) pointed out, that the last time we elected a Speaker—several of us were candidates then, too—it took an awful long time: so long that the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) rose from the Government Front Bench to move the Adjournment of the House at 25 minutes to midnight.

However long it takes us today—I hope it will not be that long—our decision is unusually important. Are we going to respond to public anger and dissatisfaction by setting out a process for making Parliament more effective, or are we going to announce tonight that it is business as usual? We will make a big mistake if that is all that we say.

Clearly, the new Speaker must help to make certain that there can be no repeat of the expenses disaster, because pay and expenses will be determined by an independent outside body. I believe that there is now general agreement on that. We need a system that is not wide open to abuse and that recognises that the public want us to be more economical in what we do. At the other extreme, I do not really want to spend any more
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Saturday mornings explaining to a national newspaper why the constituency office toilet had to be repaired before a member of my staff felt obliged to explain in more detail why this was necessary.

We cannot stop with expenses. The next source of public anger could be the disastrous impact of clauses in legislation that, because of rigid timetabling, the House has not properly examined. The House needs to take control of how it uses its time; the Government are entitled to bring forward a programme and to carry through the commitments on which they were elected, but it is not the Government’s job to dictate how scrutiny of that programme is carried out. A business Committee that does not have a Government majority is, I think, the increasingly accepted means of achieving that, and I would seek to argue for it.

We need to build on the strengths of the House, so the Select Committee system should be strengthened and made more independent. Back-Bench Members and minorities need rights to bring important issues to votes and to inquiries. The authority of the new Speaker should be used to rebalance Prime Minister’s questions in favour of Back Benchers and to help move the House towards a more constructive and less aggressive style. That aggressive style puts off many women, quite a lot of men and a lot of the public, and it is not what happens a great deal of the time in the House of Commons—but that is the part that the public mainly see.

The administrative structure over which the Speaker presides—much of the job is below the waterline—needs to open up the Commons more to the public and to make it a more family-friendly and diversity-welcoming place. I would like to see more younger and newer Members involved in bodies such as the House of Commons Commission.

The Speaker’s authority must be used to assert the independence of the House from the Executive and to protect the public. I took a privileges case against a previous Lord Chancellor over the dismissal of an agency board member who had given evidence to a Select Committee against the wishes of the board, which had been given as grounds for dismissal.

I also think it important that the Speaker has a real care and concern for Members, their staff and the staff of the House, as Speaker Martin clearly did. I would like to go further in reducing the isolation of the Speaker both inside and outside this House. There is a role for the Speaker, within limits, in speaking for the House and on its behalf to the public. The Speaker also needs to be someone who maintains the momentum for reform and does not act as a barrier to it.

That is the kind of job I want to do. It needs to be done by someone who is firm, fair and generally accepted. It is not enough to win the vote—the Speaker needs to be someone who is also accepted by those whose preferred candidate is not elected. The new Speaker and the House need a consensus decision rather than a mere majority. I would like to think that I can fulfil that requirement, and my commitment to making the House effective has run right through my political life, but the decision is in the hands of right hon. and hon. Members.

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