Examination of Witness (Questions 220
WEDNESDAY 31 JANUARY 2001
MR W R MCKAY
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 pressurespressures 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 SpeakerRt Hon Peter
Brooke wasbut 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 rightI 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 channelswhich is governmentthe
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 importanceperhaps 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
(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.
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
(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 basisie, where they have their origin.
227. I am intrigued by this because virtually
everyone who has given evidenceor I think I am right in
saying everyonehas 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 Chairthe
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 clearyou know
how it is with a general electionand 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 minutesthat is with a House of 301but,
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
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.
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
(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 candidatesand
I think the figure we might agree would be twelve rather than
fifteenthere 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.
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 mindnamely, 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
(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.
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.
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.