Examination of witnesses (Questions 40
TUESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2000
EMERY and MR
40. But the change to Standing Orders, of course,
is moved by the Government of the day, the Leader of the House?
(Mr Benn) I know this, but here is the whole question,
does the House have any life at the moment other than as the tool
of the majority party? I think, until we sort that one out, we
have a president but we do not have a house of representatives.
That is our difficulty in Britain at the moment, and I do think
we need a house of representatives, a check and balance on the
executive. I know this is a radical thing to say, but it is something
that inevitably comes to mind, when you think about who you want
in the Chair, what support you want from that person, when you
are dealing with the executive, whichever party.
41. Are you saying, for instance, Mr Benn, and
I am interested in this particularly because I sit on the Liaison
Committee, the Liaison Committee has produced a fairly dramatic
report in order to strengthen the House of Commons against the
executive, but, of course, unless the Government of the day introduces
changes to Standing Orders to bring those things about, the Government
with the majority that it has, the House will never be able to
bring those changes about; are you saying that the Speaker should
have that authority?
(Mr Benn) I think the Speaker should have a lot of
authority; but I do think, on the Standing Orders of the House,
because they are parliamentary matters, there should be a free
vote. I think the argument that the party whip should apply when
we are discussing the Standing Orders of the House, as distinct
from applying to Government business, is a principle that needs
to be seen in the context of what we are discussing. And, if you
did that, it would absolutely transform the relationships between
the legislature and the executive, and, in my opinion, transform
the attitude of the public towards the House of Commons. That
is, in the end, an even wider democratic imperative, that they
do not think that we are powerless when we get here, on these
very, very important questions, which many of them do; and, indeed,
many Members of Parliament wonder what power they have when they
come here. This is the point I think that might somehow find a
paragraph in your report, that we are discussing more than just
the voting system, and so on, we are discussing a very big ingredient
in our constitution.
Chairman: Can I indicate that the Committee
has expressed a wish, perhaps not as part of this inquiry, Mr
Benn, but a future inquiry, to look at the whole role and authority
of the Speaker in Parliament, and I do believe that what you have
said would strengthen that determination of this Committee to
undertake, at some time, I hope, in the not too distant future,
such an inquiry.
42. I would just like to pursue that point a
little bit further, and go back to a question I asked earlier
on, which really you dismissed immediately, and that is, do you
not think that part of the problem is that the role of the Speaker
is seen as a representative of the entire House, not the legislature,
and that if it were the backbenchers of this House that elected
the Speaker that role would be more defined, and that the accountability
of the executive to the House would be more clearly defined as
(Mr Benn) There are many different interests in the
House; there are the party differences, there are the differences
between front-benchers and backbenchers, all the front-benchers
being sort of Privy Councillors, and backbenchers, there is a
difference between the legislature and the executive, and working
out who the Speaker represents is an important thing. But, in
my opinion, the Speaker represents the House of Commons as a House
of Commons, which includes Ministers, but is basically a legislature.
(Mr Bradley) Does the Speaker though not have competing
roles? Yes, the role that we focus on is the absolute duty impartially
to protect and promote the interests and the rights of backbenchers
to ask questions, to hold the Government of the day to account.
But he, or she, certainly also has a role to ensure the smooth
working of our Parliament, which is the forum for the Government
to get its legislation through. So I think there is a role for
the Speaker in that context, as well as the one that is more often
referred to, which is the champion of backbenchers. It is also
worth noting that Ministers can tomorrow be backbenchers, just
as backbenchers sometimes can become Ministers, and their rights
need to be preserved, too. But, in relation to what Keith was
saying, I do not think that asking candidates to produce manifestos
in any way undermines that ultimate impartiality. We all of us
have views, I am sure, as backbenchers, for example, on the hierarchy
of the way that Speakers select speakers. We all put in our notes
about hoping to catch the Speaker's eye, but there seems, in the
past, at least, to have been an implicit recognition that the
longer you had served here, or the more senior you had become
in your political career, the greater your chances of being called
by the Speaker. One of the things I would have wanted any candidate
for Speaker to include in the manifesto was their observations
on the way that they would have conducted affairs in the Chamber,
because that affects the daily experience of every Member of Parliament.
So I think there are some basic principles that they can expound
that have nothing to do at all with their ultimate impartiality
or efficiency in the Chair.
Mrs Lorna Fitzsimons
43. Two points; one which is the main question,
but one which is just following on from Keith's question and several
responses. In terms of the manifesto, would not people accept,
because people have touched on the accountability of Speaker,
that, apart from the Chamber, in terms of ruling and who the Speaker
calls, etc., their main power is the House of Commons Commission,
and the House of Commons Commission is absolutely impenetrable
to a Member of Parliament in terms of how often you get to question
it and, realistically, the response to it? And, surely, would
not the manifesto process give you a way of looking at how they
would manage that process, which is inaccessible for us, as Members?
So I put that as one question. But the main question that I was
going to ask was, and maybe Tony, with his historical knowledge,
or Sir Peter might be able to help here, that there is a view
that, with the automatic ballot at the start of a Parliament,
it could do one of two things; that it would more likely, especially
with radical change in Parliament after general elections, where
there is it, destabilise the role of Speakership, because there
could be a significant change in the party balance following the
general election? And would it not be better, rather than to go
into an automatic, full-frontal election for a Speaker again,
actually to have a simple ballot first about whether you were
happy with the sitting Speaker, first, before you went through
all the rigmarole of having an automatic ballot?
(Mr Benn) I was just looking, I have got my list of
Speakers over the last few years. You see, here we are, if you
take 1945, when there was a huge Labour majority, Clifton Brown
was left in the Chair; if you take 1951, by which time I was here,
there was a change and another Conservative, `Shakes' Morrison,
Mr Speaker Morrison. Then, in 1959, when there was a Conservative
Government, we had Hylton-Foster; and then, in 1965, under a Labour
Government, we had Horace King. I take the point you make, but
I do not know that a radical Government of left or right coming
in necessarily would affect the role of the Speaker; indeed, I
think the more Governments come with a very clear intention of
what they want to do the more you want a House of Commons that
preserves the role of the legislature. So I do not think this
is a problem, myself. Of course, in theory, a sitting Speaker
could be defeated after a general election; it has never happened,
to the best of my knowledge, I would be very surprised if it happened
next time. I think you would find the House would want to keep
its Speaker, and the Speaker would be allowed to go on until he
decided to retire.
44. What about the point about the Commission,
I asked there?
(Mr Benn) On the question of the Commission, of course,
and any sensible candidate who wanted to get elected to the Speakership
would be very foolish if he ignored the role of all these other
functions, the Library, the Commission, and so on, the services.
I have always felt the Speaker was a bit too separate from that,
because, as a matter of fact, the Speaker could lay down what
he wanted and have it done without coming to the House at all,
in that respect, and I think that would be a very important element
to include in the manifesto. If I had wanted to be Speaker, I
would certainly have had a big section on everything from breast-feeding
in the Chamber at Parliamentary Questions right through to other
matters affecting Members.
(Mr Bradley) I think the automatic election of a Speaker
after every general election actually would undermine the role
of the Speaker, because it is almost as if to suggest that his,
or her, impartiality was in question. One of the less attractive
features of the Speaker, to somebody like myself who is perhaps
intensely party political, is that you become politically emasculated
when you are dragged to that Chair. That does not appeal to everyone.
As I say, it does not appeal to me. But, once the Speaker is in
that Chair and it is clear that he, or she, is impartial, it seems
to me that the need to reconsider after a general election evaporates.
45. Can I just put it and get an answer from
our witnesses, it was really part of the question that Lorna Fitzsimons
put, do you think that at the beginning of the new Parliament
it would be appropriate for the House of Commons to have a simple,
straightforward motion, before any ballot is implemented, that
Mr Speaker Martin do take the Chair, rather than go through a
ballot; which might well be the result of this inquiry that the
Procedure Committee is undertaking?
(Mr Benn) The trouble about that would be, if you
did want somebody else, you would have to defeat the Speaker personally,
and I think there would be an element of humiliation in that.
The procedure that every new Parliament is allowed to elect its
new Speaker is one, I think, that has democratic merit. Obviously,
it would be simpler, but supposing you applied that to a parliamentary
election, that before you could have an election in your constituency
you had to vote on whether Mr Winterton should continue, it would
create a different atmosphere.
46. I rather like it, I have to say.
(Mr Benn) It might be very attractive to some Members,
but I am not sure it would be very democratic.
(Sir Peter Emery) I think it would be quite wrong
not to ensure that every new Parliament had the right to choose
its own Speaker. And can I just say that I do think that the Committee
must take into account that there has been a very considerable
change in the role of the Speaker and the position of the House.
If you go back to `Shakes' Morrison, or to Hylton-Foster, they
considered that they were the equivalent of High Court judges,
you did not talk to them, you never went into Speaker's house,
they did not entertain, they did not do any of the things with
the CPA, or the IPU, or any of that entertaining at all. The person
who broke that down was George Thomas. George was the person who
said, "I don't have to be a High Court judge to have respect
in the Chamber, I can win respect in the Chamber for the person
I am, but I can certainly have a social life with Members of Parliament
outside the Chamber." That is a vast change, which people
today, I think, find difficult perhaps to understand, but it is
a very definite change; and I was really quite surprised that
some of the candidates who were standing for the Chair did not
point out the role that the Speaker now has outside the Chamber.
And Betty Boothroyd has certainly enhanced that, and I think it
is a very good thing. It is a good thing for the House and it
is a good thing for Members of Parliament, and I would want to
encourage that as much as possible.
47. Thank you. Two very quick questions, to
finish this part of our session. I think Tony Benn has implied
that he would like to see some change, but do our witnesses want
to see any changes in the ceremonial surrounding the election
of Speaker? And, to throw in a last question, although it was
raised by Alan Beith in a way, do our witnesses as a whole have
any views on how the Deputy Speakers should be appointed? So,
ceremonial, one; the appointment of the other three members of,
as it were, the immediate coterie surrounding the Speaker?
(Sir Peter Emery) I hope I have made my point clear;
ceremonial, the House appoints, the House does this very first
aspect of a Parliament, and we then inform Their Lordships of
the appointment we have made. It is not the prerogative of the
Crown, or any of her power, as far as I see it, it is the House
of Commons being able, as the House, to choose who they want as
a Speaker. And if that is an alteration of procedure, that I would
like to see introduced.
48. Fine; what about the Deputy Speakers, the
(Sir Peter Emery) The Deputy Speaker, I am not sure
I want an election of the Deputy Speakers. After all, we have
the Chairman of Ways and Means and then two other Deputy Speakers.
I think the system, on the whole, has worked fairly well. I think
we have got, on the whole, good people into the Chair. I can think
of only one, in my time of 40 years here, who fell into great
difficulty with George Brown and actually resigned, if you recall,
and stormed off in high dudgeon; but with that exception I think
we have done very well. And I think that perhaps the `usual channels'
have put their heads together, also there is a change so the parties
are still left in equal balance, which would not be necessary
in the case if there were elections. I do not think I would want
to see a change.
(Mr Benn) I did not think there was much ritual about
it. In fairness, Ted Heath handled an impossible system with great
panache. I thought it would last 48 hours but he got it all through
very quickly by frowning at everybody, and I was not aware of
any difficulty really. As to the, what was the other question,
about ritual and ceremony
49. Ceremony, and the Deputy Speakers?
(Mr Benn) Well, there was not a lot of ceremonial.
I have not thought about it really. There may be a case for saying
that if you get nominated for Speaker you have to accept the Deputy's
job if you do not get the Speakership; that might reduce the number
of candidates, who, the last thing they would want was to find
out they were Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means when they had
hoped to be in the Speaker's house. I have not turned my mind
to that, you will have to forgive me.
(Sir Peter Emery) That would stop them very quickly.
(Mr Bradley) I have not turned my mind to it either,
but it seems to me to be logical that if you are going to elect
the Speaker to chair the proceedings of the House of Commons then
you ought to elect the Deputies who do the same job. As for ceremony,
if it is meaningful I am quite attracted to ceremony, but, as
I said earlier, I do think it is strange, dragging somebody, kicking
and screaming, to a job for which they have proposed their own
candidature and are going to be adequately rewarded. So I do think
it should be relevant, and if it is not relevant we should dispense
with it. The last point, I just wanted to raise with you, if there
is to be an automatic election, with every new Parliament, of
the Speaker, it seems to me also to follow that that Speakers
would have to submit themselves to Parliamentary election in a
way that has not happened in recent years; and if they did so
they would have to resume their party politics. I am saying, if
there is a chance that the current Speaker may not be the Speaker
in the next Parliament, he ought to give up the privilege of fighting
uncontested his own constituency in a general election. If he
does that then he has to stand and in so doing resume his party
(Mr Benn) No Speaker has ever sat in the House after
having been Speaker, and we did change the rule, did we not, so
the Speaker continues until the new Parliament, I think, is not
that it? I think in the old days the Speaker disappeared with
(Mr Bradley) But the point I am making is, the Speaker
should not face an election and then be forced from the Chair.
(Mr Benn) No, I take your point. Put crudely, if Michael
Martin thought he was going to be beaten he had better be the
Labour candidate the next time round, that is what you are saying.
50. Of course, Speaker Boothroyd was opposed
but not by the official parties; but she was opposed and had to
contest an election with a green rosette.
(Mr Bradley) But that was on the assumption that she
would continue in the Chair after the election. If the assumption
is that you cannot presume that you will still be the Speaker
in the new Parliament, it seems that you should give up your right
to enter an election without contesting it.
(Mr Benn) People think having the Speaker as your
local MP is a disadvantage; quite the opposite. As a Minister,
if I got a letter from the Speaker about a constituent, my God,
I got onto it in five minutes. So, having the Speaker as your
MP, as Mr or Ms Speaker, is a very, very strong advantage.
51. I shall use that quotation in my constituency,
Mr Benn. I am very grateful for that opinion. Mr Keen?
(Mr Keen) On the election of Deputy Speakers, I think
they should be elected, and I think, to use a proper analogy again,
there are players and referees; and I think that the Speakers
and Chairpersons of Committees are the referees and they should
come through the system, and the Speaker eventually should come
from that group of people, not the Speaker being made as a reward
for some other services. Can I say, on the point we have been
talking about, it would confuse the electorate quite a bit, I
think, if, having elected one person as Speaker of the House of
Commons, they find that a few weeks later that person was no longer
Speaker, and they would have then maybe preferred to elect somebody
because of a political party.
52. There is just one point they did not respond
to, Mr Benn has, and Sir Peter Emery, but Mr Keen and Mr Bradley
have not, and that is on the approbation of the House of Lords
being sought on our selection of Speaker. And I just wonder if
you could clarify whether you feel that we should report who we
have elected as our Speaker to the House of Lords, or whether
you feel the current system is adequate, that we have to seek
the approval of the House of Lords?
(Mr Bradley) No, I think it is absolutely nothing
to do with them; it is our business and not theirs.
(Mr Keen) I would not even tell them that we had elected
53. I just wanted to confirm that you were unanimous
(Mr Benn) They discover we have got a new Speaker,
because, as you know, the House of Commons makes former Speakers
into Peers. The only elected Member of the House of Lords is the
former Speaker. We pass a motion, a humble address, praying that
Her Majesty will confer a signal mark of Royal Favour on Betty
Boothroyd, or Jack Weatherill. Now why we should have to ask the
Queen to make him or her Peers is another matter. Why do we not
have a simple resolution declaring that so-and-so is to be a Peer.
Because I wrote to Betty recently and said she is the only elected
Member of the House of Lords, she and Jack, and I think there
is a certain ultimate humiliation, we have to ask the Queen to
put them in the Lords; why do we have to ask, why do we not just
do it ourselves? But that is wider than your remit today.
54. That is slightly wider; but can I thank
our four witnesses very much indeed, Mr Tony Benn, Mr Peter Bradley,
Sir Peter Emery and Mr Alan Keen. We have overrun by nearly 25
minutes, but it has been worthwhile, and I am very grateful to
all four of them for their frankness and for the value of their
evidence. Thank you very much indeed.
(Sir Peter Emery) Thank you for treating us so kindly.
Chairman: Thank you.