Orders of the Day — Election of Speaker

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th August 1972.

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[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified]

11.45 p.m.

That—

  1. (1) Whenever it is necessary to proceed forthwith to the choice of a new Speaker in consequence of Mr. Speaker having ceased for any reason to be a Member of this House, the Chair shall be taken by that Member, present in the House, and not being a Minister of the Crown, who has served for the longest period continuously as a Member of this House.
  2. (2) Whenever it is necessary to proceed to the choice of a new Speaker in consequence of an intimation to Her Majesty by Mr. Speaker of his wish to relinquish that office, then Mr. Speaker shall continue to take the Chair and shall perform the duties and exercise the authority of Speaker until a new Speaker has been chosen, whereupon he shall leave the Chair and shall cease to perform those duties and to exercise that authority and Mr. Speaker Elect shall take the Chair accordingly:
    • Provided that if when this House proceeds to choose a new Speaker, the unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker has been announced, Mr. Deputy Speaker shall forthwith leave the Chair and the Chair shall be taken in accordance with the provisions of paragraph (1) of this Order.
  3. (3) A Member taking the Chair under the the provisions of paragraph (1) of this Order shall enjoy all those powers which may be exercised by Mr. Speaker during proceedings under paragraph (2) thereof.
  4. (4) When a Motion has been made, in accordance with the provisions of this Order, That a certain Member do take the Chair of this House as Speaker, a question shall be proposed on that Motion and the question on any further such Motion shall be put as an amendment thereto.

That this Order be a Standing Order of the House.

Photo of Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris , Nantwich

I suggest that it will be for the convenience of the House to consider at the same time the following Motion—"Procedure": That whereas this House, in meeting to choose a Speaker, has heretofore proceeded in accordance with the ancient usages, it shall at every such meeting hereafter proceed in accordance with the Standing Orders, so far as they are applicable. If that is agreeable, I have then to inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the first Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), in paragraph (1), after 'by', insert 'the Chairman of Ways and Means or, failing him, the other Deputy Speakers in order of seniority as such, or failing them, the members of the Chairman's panel in order of seniority as such or failing them'. The remaining Amendments in the hon. Gentleman's name may be discussed at the same time, namely:

In paragraph (1), leave out 'continuously';

In paragraph (1), at end insert 'Any Member designated to take the Chair under this Order may refuse to do so but, if he accepts and takes the Chair, may not be nominated as Speaker'; In the proviso to paragraph (2), leave out 'Mr. Deputy Speaker shall forthwith leave the Chair and'.

I have also to inform the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) that Mr. Speaker has not selected the manuscript Amendment which he has submitted to him in connection with the Motion on Procedure.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I take it that the taking of that order with the order dealing with the election of Speaker does not prejudice the right of the House, if it wishes, to divide on the second order, since it contains a material misstatement of fact and that course might be necessary.

Photo of Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris Wing Commander Sir Robert Grant-Ferris , Nantwich

The hon. Gentleman is quite correct in that.

Photo of Mr Robert Carr Mr Robert Carr , Mitcham

Once again, I find myself, as it were, the channel of communication between our Procedure Committee and the House. Perhaps it would at this point be right for me to say to our Procedure Committee, on behalf of the House—even though, alas, the House is rather thinly attended at the moment—that we greatly appreciate the work which it does in its attempts to help us to keep our procedures in tune with modern and often changing needs. We do not always agree with the Procedure Committee, but sometimes we do. We have just done so on the last matter, and I hope that that we shall do so on this also.

As the House will have noted, this Motion, though limited, is historic. The central figure in our parliamentary life is Mr. Speaker, and it is on the great tradition of the Speakership for impartiality and wise guidance that we as individual Members depend. The procedure for electing a Member to the Speakership is, therefore, of the utmost importance.

The existing procedures have successfully provided us with a long line of Speakers who have amply justified the high trust which the House has placed in them. The House will agree, I know, that we ought not to tamper lightly with the procedures which have served us so well over so many years. Nevertheless, certain criticisms were raised on the procedures followed at the time of Mr. Speaker's election, as they had been on the occasion of the elections of Mr. Speaker Clifton-Brown and Mr. Speaker Morrison, for example.

These criticisms have been particularly about the alleged lack of consultation with back benchers. They gave rise to the inquiry by the Procedure Committee to see whether changes were called for, and it is on the recommendations of the Procedure Committee that the proposed new Standing Order is based.

It is fair to point out that on the principal issues which the Committee considered, it has, rightly I believe, confirmed existing long-standing practice, namely, in its rejection of any form of election by ballot, and in its confirmation—in paragraphs 26 and 27 of its report—of the present position with regard to the matter of qualifications for the Speakership. The Committee's view, and mine, is that any failings there may have been on previous occasions over consultation with hon. Members have not been procedural failings.

The right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), speaking as a senior back bencher, spoke for both Front Benches, and I hope for more than both Front Benches, when he told the Committee: … you can always improve on consultation and you can do that by having more of it. There was not enough of it last time". I think he spoke for a far greater number of hon. Members than himself in using those words on an all-party basis.

The one area in which the Committee recommended change, and which is the subject of the draft Standing Order, was that of the actual procedure on the Floor of the House when a new Speaker is elected. Criticism has focused on two aspects of the existing procedure. The first is that when the Clerk of the House acts under the present procedures as presiding officer on these occasions he would be powerless to deal with any points of order if they were raised, and he acts without any of the powers which normally buttress the occupant of the Chair. The House is therefore, potentially at least, highly vulnerable at those times.

The second is that the present practice of not putting the Question if only one candidate for the Speakership is proposed is contrary to the normal procedures of the House, and leads to the undesirable situation that if a vote is desired, a second candidate must be put forward, possibly even without his consent, as happened on the last occasion.

To meet these two criticisms the Committee has made a number of procedural recommendations, summarised in paragraph 28 of its report. Its most significant proposal is perhaps that the Clerk of the House should no longer preside at the election of a new Speaker, and that, in future, either the retiring Speaker should do so, if his retirement takes place in the middle of a Session; or that, in other cases, the back bencher with the longest unbroken period of service who is at present in the House should do so.

The Committee further recommends that the Question should in future be put on the Motion for the election of a sole candidate for the Speakership; and that Motions for the election of all candidates subsequent to the first should be moved in the form of amendments to the original Motion, so that the way is kept open, if possible, for the unanimous election of the first, or another, candidate. In that way we can have our votes without any artificial troubles as we have had before, and also give ourselves the opportunity in the end, if it be the wish of the House, unanimously to confirm the final choice of the House in his occupancy of the Chair.

As I have previously indicated in a Written Reply to my right. Hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir Robin Turton), the Government have decided to recommend these proposals to the House, after careful thought about the recommendations.

I should perhaps qualify this on two points. First, as the House will have noted, the Standing Order would give the presiding senior back bencher simply all the powers of Mr. Speaker for this purpose, instead of specifying the particular Standing Orders concerned. On reflecting about the Committee's recommendations here, we thought that although the Committee was probably right in indicating which Standing Orders should be put at the disposal of the hon. Member temporarily occupying the Chair, it might not be possible to foresee all circumstances, and that since he would occupy the Chair only for this limited purpose it was wiser, as the Motion proposes, that he should be given all the powers of Mr. Speaker while proceeding to act for this purpose of the selection of a new Speaker.

Secondly, where we depart from the Committee's recommendation is in respect of its recommendation (4). I am advised that legislation would be required if the Chairman of Ways and Means were to exercise a Speaker's authority in an interim between the death of a Speaker and the House proceeding to the election of his successor. I am not for one moment saying that we are opposed to that. What I am saying is that I am advised that this would be contrary to the provisions of present legislation and would require new legislation. If it were to be decided to introduce such legislation, I think it would be best to make any consequential amendment to Standing Orders at that time. As I have said, we have by no means ruled that out, but it seemed to us right to go as far we could to accept these recommendations now because it is not always easy to fit in legislation even if it were to be the general wish of the House so to do.

In recommending the Committee's proposals, while I have found its arguments persuasive in proposing that these occasions should no longer be presided over by the Clerk of the House, I would not wish, and I am sure the House would not wish me, to let the occasion go by without paying tribute on behalf of right hon. and hon. Members past and present to the way in which we have been served so long and successfully by the Clerks of the House in this matter, and it is of course no criticism of them or of the way any of them have carried out their duties on these occasions that we propose this change.

In his own evidence to the Committee, the present Clerk acknowledged the vulnerability of the House on these occasions and expressed wittily his ready acceptance of the change. He will, I am sure, nevertheless recognise, and perhaps relish, the fact that the proposed revival of the rôle of the senior back bencher in this matter would represent a change to a still older tradition of the House. In bringing ourselves up to date, we are going back to a tradition even older than that which we are proposing to change.

In this, even more than in most other matters which fall to me as Leader of the House, I seek here the views of the House, and I do so in recommending to hon. Members the proposal of an all-party committee. It is surely unnecessary for me to stress that it is not a case of the Government asking the House to do something. It is but chance—convenience, perhaps—that I speak on this occasion from the Despatch Box. It is a House of Commons matter above all else. The Government happen to be in favour of the Committee's recommendations after careful consideration, and believe that the change proposed in the Standing Order would be in the interests of the House. But the Government's view is immaterial. It is above all a House of Commons matter and it is in that spirit that I commend the Motion.

12 midnight

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

I beg to move, in paragraph 1(1), after 'by', insert: 'the Chairman of Ways and Means or, failing him, the other Deputy Speakers in order of seniority as such, or failing them, the members of the Chairmen's panel in order of seniority as such or failing them'. I agree with the Leader of the House that the Select Committee on Procedure serves a useful purpose, but I do not think that we should laud it to the skies and assume that every single word it produces ought automatically to be approved by the House. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman in his usual courteous way explained that the Motion contained some alterations from the recommendations of the Committee.

What I protest slightly about is the fact that there are really two stages of procedure in altering procedures of the House. One of those stages, a very essential one, that has always been followed as far as possible by all Leaders of the House is to lay Motions of this type as early as possible upon the Order Paper so that possible Amendments can be considered and discussed. I gather that the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) has had time only to put down a manuscript Amendment to one of the Motions. In the case of my Amendments, the right hon. Gentleman, again with his usual courtesy, seized five minutes from a very busy day to discuss them with me, but this is not really a satisfactory state of affairs.

I ask the Leader of the House: what is the cause of this sudden, extraordinary hurry? It has not been customary to hurry over changes recommended by the Procedure Committee, but with this one a modest six months has elapsed and it appears upon the Order Paper. It would have been better if it had appeared upon the Paper a little earlier and we could have discussed some of the points in it, because I submit that some of the points in it are a total nonsense, not because of any fault of the Leader of the House, but because the Procedure Committee has not really considered or certainly not explained some of its recommendations.

When the Leader of the House says that an all-party committee has considered this and therefore we should agree, I should suggest that that is depriving this House of its legitimate rights. The function of a Select Committee is to hear evidence, to make it available to the House, to consider its recommendations and to make them available to the Leader of the House, who may then wish to adapt or alter them so that the whole House can consider the ultimate best results. I do not think the Committee's latest report is a perfect example of being totally nonpartisan. It may be all-party in the sense that members of the Labour and Conservative parties were represented but I see that on the last day of the sitting it shot off a little bolt on the Common Market which, coming from a Committee whose Chairman is a Conservative anti-Marketeer and the majority of whose Labour Members are in the minority of their party, is peculiar to say the least. In that respect at least, on the most controversial issue of the Session, the Committee is not at all representative.

The object of this Amendment is to say that the person taking the Chair should not be the senior back bencher. In the normal course of events one would assume that the senior back bencher is often the oldest, and I am not in any way referring to the present senior back bencher in the House. In any case, we do not know, under this Motion, who would be likely to take the Chair.

Under the unamended Motion the person taking the Chair would simply be the senior back bencher present in the House. I have every confidence in the ability of the present Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir Robin Turton), to take the Chair. As the unhappy incident of his absence tonight shows—and I share the views of the Leader of the House and am glad to hear that he will soon be back with us—it may not be someone so competent.

I think it is fair to say that in their last Parliament some hon. and right hon. Members are perhaps, to put it delicately, past the best that they have hitherto exhibited, due to age and infirmity. It may simply be an elderly and senior Member whose competence to take the Chair would not be as great as that of the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. Because it is the senior back bencher present in the House, I would suggest that the first people to be considered as possibilities for this small but important task of chairing the House when the Speaker is elected should be yourself, Sir Robert, or your colleagues, the Deputy Speakers, in order of seniority, and the members of the Chairmen's Panel, in order of seniority. Then, if none of these was available, we could run through the House in order of seniority, as the present, unamended Motion proposes.

It could be argued, although it is not argued by the Committee, that the reason for excluding yourself and other Deputy Speakers is that they are possible candidates for the Speakership. It could so be argued, but it was not argued by the Procedure Committee and I suggest there is a very good reason why it was not argued—and that is that the Committee's recommendation does not exclude the person in the Chair being nominated as Speaker at the election he is conducting.

It is clear why the Committee did not say why it was not recommending that the Chairman of Ways and Means or other Members of the House used to taking the Chair should not do so. I am sorry to correct the Leader of the House slightly. The Committee did not even recommend that it should be the senior Member of the House taking the Chair. It recommended that it should be the senior Member of the House with unbroken service.

I fail totally to understand that. We all know that hon. Members can lose seats that they have held for years. In fact, three or four of the most senior Members of the House lost their seats at the last election. We all know that boundaries can be changed every 15 years or so. A Member may have been in the House for 40 years or longer. I believe that the present Father of the House has been here for 50 years. Suppose that a Member had been in the House for 50 years but at one point was out of it for six months, so that he had been in the House for only 49½ years. He could not under this Motion take the Chair because he had lost his seat at an election but had come back at a subsequent by-election. This is an absolute nonsense. I fail to see why the word "continuously" should be in the Motion, and that is the object of my second Amendment.

We all know of people who have returned to this House after an absence and have become Ministers of the Crown because of their experience of the House. We automatically accept this practice, in the case of a person who returns after losing his seat, because we know that he is an experienced Member. Yet the net effect of the Procedure Committee's recommendation—and it is a little unfortunate that the present Father of the House is the Chairman of the Procedure Committee—is that its Chairman takes the Chair when the Speaker is elected.

I come to my third Amendment, in paragraph (1), at the end to insert: 'Any Member designated to take the Chair under this Order may refuse to do so but, if he accepts and takes the Chair, may not be nominated as Speaker'. One could argue about who should take the Chair to preside over the election of Speaker, but the real nonsense of this recommendation is that the person in the Chair can be nominated as Speaker. That is where it is totally wrong. It does not alter the ancient practice of the House whereby a person who is nominated as Speaker may not refuse. As we all know from the historic ceremony, when a Member is pulled towards the Chair, the person elected as Speaker cannot refuse the office. It therefore follows that a person cannot refuse to be nominated. If he could refuse to do that, he could refuse to be elected, which he cannot do.

There is always the odd Member who might wish to do that for reasons of publicity. A Member might nominate the person in the Chair as one of the candidates. There would then be an election and the person in the Chair would be in the extraordinary position of presiding over his own election or defeat. I say that advisedly because the Motion is quite mandatory. The person to take the Chair at the election of the Speaker shall be the senior Member present in the House. Obviously, the person actually in the Chair at the time that he is nominated must be present in the House and cannot get out of it. He could not say, "Somebody else can take the Chair", because the Motion does not allow that. The only way to get out of such an awkward situation would be for somebody on the Government Front Bench or elsewhere to move the Adjournment of the House in the middle of the election so that the person in the Chair could get out and somebody else could take over—and the person in the Chair could get out only by not being present in the House.

So—who knows?—one day the senior Member in the House might be a candidate for the Speakership, if older and infirmer Members were not present, and the person thus nominated might not even be in the House when elected, because he had left in order not to be in the Chair and preside over his own election. We would then have the extraordinary situation in which it would be impossible to follow the traditional custom of the person elected being taken to the Chair, because he would be out of the House as a result of his not being allowed in without being in the Chair. That seems to me to be a piece of idiocy.

The last Amendment is technical. The effect of the Motion as presently worded is that the Father of the House—defined as the one with the longest unbroken service, who happens at present to be the Chairman of the Committee that considered the recommendation—shall take the Chair and may be capable of being nominated as Speaker. I suggest that, whoever takes the Chair, that should not be the case. I sincerely hope that if the Government wish to press the Motion in its present form tonight, in the new Session they will put down a modest Amendment designed to ensure that this sort of conflict of interests does not arise.

12.12 a.m.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

The Report of the Select Committee on Procedure emphasises that its major recommendations—which the prime Motion tonight in the name of the Leader of the House executes—are not innovations. It says that it is returning to the ancient usages of the House. More precisely, if we look at the top of page xi of the report we read: The Clerk of the House explained that the 'modern rule' was that 'when a candidate is unopposed, no question is proposed and there is no opportunity for argument or dissent leading to a division'. This rule was criticised by Mr. Gaitskell during the election of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster in 1959". and so on.

The first major change proposed is to abandon what is admittedly a modern rule in favour of what was the ancient usage. The second major change proposed is that instead of having a mute Clerk in the Chair there should be an articulate Member of the House, armed with the normal powers of the Chair in the conduct of debate. That, again, is returning to the ancient usage of the House. It is not an innovation.

Paragraph 21, on page xiii of the report, contains the statement by the Select Committee that For a Member to preside at the election of the Speaker would therefore represent a return to an ancient practice of the House. That is relevant, because somebody very unwisely—and it is not difficult to guess who—wrote the reverse of the true statement of the position in relation to the procedure Motion which appears in my right hon. Friend's name on the Order Paper. The Motion provides That whereas this House, in meeting to choose a Speaker has heretofore proceeded in accordance with the ancient usages, it shall at every such meeting hereafter proceed in accordance with the Standing Orders, so far as they are applicable. That is manifestly not a statement of fact. As the Select Committee has accurately declared, the House has been proceeding in accordance with not the ancient usages but some corrupt practices which crept into its usages after 1700, because as late as 1700 the question was put without an alternative candidate being nominated.

Therefore, we cannot accept and write into the Journal of the House what everyone here knows or should know to be an untrue statement of fact. I believe that the truth is that Sir Barnett Cocks gave erroneous advice to both Front Benches before the debate on the election of the Speaker on 12th January, 1971. He had had drawn to his attention the precedents, which showed that the advice which he had given was erroneous. I know that that is so because I drew it to his attention and showed him the photostats of the Journal. We are in the unhappy position that the Clerk who gives bad advice to the Chair is also the editor of Erskine May. We have a circular situation in which bad advice can be enshrined in Erskine May as a precedent by the same person who gave the bad advice and then quoted subsequently as an authority to the House.

I mention this matter because it is a dangerous practice against which we need to be on our guard. Having established beyond a peradventure—the evidence appears in the Select Committee's Report—that the major practices to which we are returning are ancient usages and that the more recent habits are literally modern innovation, it would be quite wrong for us to cover up the initial errors of advice offered to the Front Benches by this rather comfortable but inaccurate Motion which claims that heretofore we proceeded in accordance with ancient usages when we did no such thing.

It is commendable that the Select Committee has rejected both the major proposals of the Clerk of the House and has accepted that we need to return to the much better earlier practices of the House. The recommendations of the Clerk appear in paragraph 27 on page 19 of the Select Committee's Report, where he states: It is therefore suggested that in future the Clerk of the House, who presides during the election of a Speaker, should be given authority first to propose the question and then to accept a Motion 'That the debate be now adjourned'…". That was pretty bad advice to give the Select Committee. Why it should be sensible to debate a motion "That the debate be now adjourned" rather than the Motion that another Member do take the Chair as Speaker was never made clear.

The proper procedure of this House as laid down in Erskine May and elsewhere is that when a Motion is moved it is debated and the debate is terminated by putting the Question. There is no more reason why this should not be done when electing the Speaker than in the case of any other business. The Select Committee has very wisely recommended that the normal practice of the House—namely, to determine a Motion by putting the Question—should be adhered to and that if there are Amendments to the Motion the Question should be put on those Amendments before it is put on the main Question, which is the normal procedure of the House, rather than adopting the absurd and recondite suggestions put forward by Sir Barnett Cocks. Manifestly it was not his good day.

Therefore, I commend to the House the main propositions put forward by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, although not the procedure Motion, which I ask him to withdraw. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, alluded to a manuscript Amendment which I offered the Chair which would have corrected the error of fact in the procedure Motion. As that Amendment has not been selected by Mr. Speaker, it will be necessary for the Motion to be withdrawn and resubmitted to the House in a corrected form. I trust that my right hon. Friend will not wish to abuse the House by having written into the Journal such a clear mis-statement of fact.

Turning to the Amendment moved, I thought, moderately and reasonably by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), I have no strong feelings about whether or not the Father of the House, as it were, should be determined in terms of continuous service to the House. Were it the tradition that the Father of the House should be the hon. Member with the maximum extent of service to the House whether or not broken, I would not disagree for a moment, but as long as we retain the tradition that the Father of the House is the hon. Member with the longest period of continuous service it is convenient rather than highly meritorious that the same easily identifiable person should take the Chair under these proposals.

What is not clear to me are the two propositions put forward by the hon. Gentleman. First of all, why is it that the occupant of the Chair at the time when the election of the Speaker takes place should be able to move out of the Chair only on a Motion for the adjournment? You, this evening, Mr. Deputy Speaker, moved in and out of the Chair without any Motion for the adjournment coming before the House. There is no procedural reason why it should be necessary to adjourn the House.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

There would normally be no reason: it has just been written into the Motion. In this Motion, the person taking the Chair must be the senior Member present in the House. Once he is in the Chair he is the senior Member present in the House, and no one else can take the Chair because he is the senior Member present in the House.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

I take that point, which goes more than half-way to answering my question.

But my second point is that I see no basic objection to the Father of the House, who happens to be in the Chair, being one of the candidates for election as Speaker. I must say that on the basis of probabilities, for the very reason given by the hon. Gentleman himself, I think it highly unlikely that the House would wish to elect its Father as Speaker, just because the peak of his mental agility is likely to be passed, to put it kindly. After the eulogy paid by my right hon. Friend to all the Speakers, apparently, in living memory, all I can say is that I think that his charity and kindness, characteristics which endear him in all corners of the House, have possibly overcome the powers of his memory, a point which it might be indelicate to elaborate at any greater length since no very considerable powers of memory would be needed to dispute it.

But, unlikely as it is that the Father of the House would be a serious candidate for the Speakership, on the contrary I should have thought it quite likely that the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Deputy Speaker, would in many circumstances be a serious candidate for the Speakership. Therefore, if what we want to avoid is the occupant of the Chair being one of the serious candidates for the Speakership, surely the Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means are those whom we would least want to see in the Chair for that particular occasion. I say that with the reservation that someone who is worthy of occupying the Chair as Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means or as Chairman of Ways and Means is perfectly competent to preside fairly over the election of a Speaker even if he happens to be one of the candidates. If that is not so, it is a very unhappy day for the House of Commons.

So, on those arguments and balancing the Amendments against the substantive Motion, the Amendments do not commend themselves to me.

I should therefore feel inclined to support the unamended procedure Motion, but to represent as strongly as I can that my right hon. Friend should save the House from the inconvenience of having to divide on the procedure Motion to prevent this violence being done to truth by recognising that it contains a misstatement of fact, which was identified by the Select Committee in its report, and to retable it tomorrow when I have not the slightest doubt it would go through without further debate since we have had the occasion of debating it tonight.

12.25 a.m.

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

I should say two things at the outset. First, we all share the regret of the Leader of the House at the absence of the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir Robin Turton). We hope that there is nothing seriously wrong and that the right hon. Gentleman will be with us again shortly. We regret it the more because I am sure he would have wished to tell the House about the report of the Select Committee of which he is Chairman. We are therefore without the advice which he would have given us about the reasons for the conclusions reached by the Select Committee.

Secondly, we sincerely hope that it will not be necessary to invoke the new Standing Orders for the election of a new Speaker in the foreseeable future. Some of my hon. Friends said "Why stick this matter on the Order Paper very late at night on the day before we are to rise for the Summer Recess?" I suppose the answer is that Speakers are mortal and that these things can happen. We profoundly hope that they will not. But when we have recommendations from a Select Committee about changing the procedure it is desirable not to delay too long in making the changes.

I tried to follow the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) in his criticism of the procedure Motion. I think he was suggesting that if it were amended to read, 'has heretofore proceeded more or less in accordance with the ancient usages", it would meet his point. It was the literal wording of the Motion which seemed to offend the hon. Gentleman's sense of history in the matter.

In general, I have no great patience with the ancient usages of the House. I think we should have a good look at some of them and discard quite a lot. We are asking everybody else in Britain to be with it, except our own House of Commons. It is about time that we stripped it of a great deal of the ancient usages. Nevertheless, I am sure that much is well tried in our parliamentary institutions. There is nothing like coming into the House of Commons for taming the most militant and radical spirit. It absorbs us into its sense of history and traditions. To some extent, that is one of the disadvantages of coming here. We lose our revolutionary impetus and radical instincts to get rid of all that rubbish and routine and the ancient usages. We find ourselves falling under the spell of the ancient usages of the House of Commons, and here we are, late at night, either defending them or very reluctant to change them.

Refreshing my memory of the proceedings of the Select Committee, I find that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) and myself gave some very wise evidence. In answer to question 152 of the published evidence, I expressed the view that the Deputy Speaker should preside on the occasions when it was necessary to elect a new Speaker. When the question was raised earlier whether this might be an embarrassment as he might be a candidate, I said that would not really matter. I think the Select Committee was probably right to recommend that the Deputy Speaker should not take the Chair in those circumstances and to relieve all occupants of the Chair from the duty on such an occasion so that their own candidature should be absolutely uninhibited if they wished to be considered for election. I think, on balance, that the committee's recommendation is right.

When the House refers these difficult matters to Select Committees, we have a certain obligation to accept the Committee's recommendations unless there are very compelling reasons against doing so. When Select Committees are asked to sit, and when right hon. and hon. Members are asked to give evidence and they ponder over these matters and come to unanimous conclusions—and I ask right hon. and hon. Members to look at the proceedings of this Committee to see how unanimous they were—unless we feel that they have gone seriously wrong then, whatever our own judgment, in matters of this kind we should accept the Committee's judgment.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

There was no division in the Committee, but the draft report was several times amended. As requested by my right hon. Friend, I have looked at the proceedings, and I see that the Committee was not exactly unanimous in the sense that we normally use the phrase "on the nod".

With regard to my right hon. Friend's more substantive point, I agree that this may have been the reason for the Committee phrasing its report as it did. It may have meant that the Deputy Speaker may be a candidate for the Speakership, but it does not say that that is why it recommended this. It does not say why it should be someone with unbroken service, as distinct from the senior back bencher. Finally, it does not exclude the person in the Chair from being a candidate which, according to my right hon. Friend, is the reason for leaving the Deputy Speaker out of it.

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

I accept what my hon. Friend says, that it was not unanimous in the sense that right from the outset everyone was in agreement, but we have recently had a report from the Select Committee on Privileges which is now a quite sincerely unanimous report but it did not start as that. We have to take the report as we get it and, looking at the proceedings, there seems to have been no serious disagreement as far as I can tell.

I still believe that Select Committees which make recommendations to the House are entitled to the fullest respect of the House unless there are strong reasons why we should set aside their recommendations. It is a very good rule; otherwise there will be a disinclination to serve on Select Committees. I fire a shot across somebody's bows in this connection in relation to the appointment of a Speaker's Conference. The Speaker's Conference sits and chews over these things at great length. If it ponders deeply over them and makes recommendations only to find that for political reasons its recommendations are not accepted, it will be a great discouragement to those of us who perform these arduous duties.

It is true that the Committee has not given reasons for its recommendations, but it is pretty obvious that what it had in mind was that the Chair should be taken by a back bencher, and it should be taken by the back bencher with the longest continuous service. As the hon. Member for Tiverton said, one thing that is needed in this matter is to be able to identify the person who is going to take the Chair. If one takes into account broken periods of service, there may be a good deal of disputation and looking up of calendars to find out who really has the longest service. If one takes the longest period of continuous service there cannot be much doubt about it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) referred to some of the difficulties that might occur in connection with the back bencher with the longest continuous service in the House. It is conceivable that he might be gaga and that he would be unsuitable to take the Chair. In those circumstances it would be the duty of some right hon. and hon. Gentlemen to keep him in the Smoke Room and make sure that he was not present in the Chamber. We would not mind him being somewhere else. All we have to do then is to select the Member with the longest continuous service who is present in the House. Surely that can be fixed. After all, Whips fix most things and could surely fix that. I do not think that any difficulty will arise in that connection.

On the whole, therefore, we should support the Select Committee and hope that we shall not have to go through this experience in the near future. We have had only 11 Speakers in the last 100 years. That is a splendid record of service in the Chair. Only infrequently is the House troubled with the problem of electing a new Speaker.

I conclude by reference to the main matters which went to the Select Committee which are not before us now. It was not this particular aspect of the election of the Speaker that caused the House to refer this matter to the Select Committee. It was a matter of deeper significance and greater substance than the purely procedural matters, although many of us felt that it was time, with great respect to the Clerk of the House, to relieve the Clerk of the task of fixing some hon. Member with a steely stare, pointing a finger at him and, in sepulchral tones, calling upon him to do something. No one knew quite what it was, but he was called upon to do something. Under the recommendations of the Select Committee all that will be dispensed with. I am sure that no one will be better pleased about this than the Clerk of the House.

But the deeper matters that went to the Select Committee were consultation, secret ballot and other means of electing the new Speaker. The hon. Member for Tiverton is an authority on the surprising thing in these matters. He nominated my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) as a candidate for Speaker without his prior knowledge or consent. My right hon. Friend rose in his place in a very embarrassed condition. He said that he knew nothing about it and did not want it, and he asked whether he might have the leave of the House to decline this great honour. But apparently the House said "No. You have been nominated, brother, and stand you will have to." This all seemed to be an absolute farce. I suppose that we were grateful to the hon. Member for revealing some of the farcical aspects of the ancient usages of the House.

However, the idea of a secret ballot appealed to no one when it came to looking at it very closely. As for consultation, the Leader of the House did me the honour of quoting from my evidence, and there is nothing more to be said about it. The remedy for lack of consultation is to have more of it. There are plenty of opportunities and facilities for having it. The secret ballot was certainly not a solution to this difficult matter.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Just for the record, it did not show the ridiculous nature of the ancient usages of the House, which were that the House divided on the question, that one of these Members take the Chair. It showed the ridiculous nature of the subsequent corrupt procedures which had crept in.

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

I fully understand that the hon. Gentleman has referred to the ancient usages of the House in quite a comprehensive way. There were aspects of the matter last time which we realise were unsatisfactory and in conflict with what had been done previously.

However, the hour is late and I am sure that the House will not lightly set aside the recommendations of the Select Committee, notwithstanding the persuasive way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West propounded his Amendments. I sincerely hope that we regard this as the most satisfactory report that we have and adopt it and see how we go next time.

Photo of Mr Robert Carr Mr Robert Carr , Mitcham

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) asked: why the hurry? I am glad that the hon. Gentleman thinks a delay of six months is hurrying. I take that as a compliment. That leads me to reiterate what the right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) said: there is no hurry because we expect or want to have to use these procedures. Indeed, I reinforce what the right hon. Gentleman said and express the sincere hope that it will be many years before we have any need to use them.

However, having said that, such an exciting picture has been painted of what might happen under the new procedures that I hope that, although we all hope that it will be a long time before we shall have to use them, I shall be here to see them in operation. I further hope that I shall not be the oldest Member who is gaga and who must be detained in the Smoking Room. It strikes me, when I think back to the stormy days of the Industrial Relations Bill, that we might have problems of peaceful picketing even in this ancient Chamber.

The right hon. Member, on the brink of a holiday, is far from tired and jaded. When he attacked our ancient usages, he showed the youthful energy of radical reform which he told us earlier he inherited from his family tradition.

I come to the question of ancient usage and the problems of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop). I had thought of this ancient usage in the Motion in a rather different sense. I had thought of the ancient usage as being the fact that hitherto we had followed custom and practice, whereas from now onwards we are to follow the written rule in our Standing Orders. I thought that that was a change. Indeed, in my opening speech I said that some of the procedures we were now recommending were more ancient than those we were replacing and that the real change was that we were moving from a tradition to having a rule about it and, in the future, following Standing Orders.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton will not oppose the Motion, because I know that he is one of those who believe that it is right that we should get this change properly affirmed by the House. If the Motion is agreed to tonight, I cannot give any undertaking to table another Motion in due course, but I certainly will not rule it out. I will willingly talk to my hon. Friend about it if he would care to do so. If I could, after certain soundings, agree on a more agreeable form of words in a few months' time, I would certainly not rule out tabling a Motion. I hope that we can complete the process tonight so that we have a proper new procedure for dealing with this, although we have no expectation of having to use it.

I come to the Amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West. I agree very much with the right hon. Member for Sowerby that, although we should not follow the recommendations of an all-party Select Committee slavishly, nevertheless we should not depart from such recommendations unless there is good reason for doing so. It is true that the Motion departs from the recommendation in two respects, for reasons which I explained earlier. I believe that there are good reasons for departing from the recommendations in these respects.

I do not wish to argue strongly against the Amendments. They are perfectly legitimate alternative views. I hope, however, that on the whole the House will stick to the proposals of our Procedure Committee. By his first Amendment, the hon. Member wants the Chair to be taken by the Chairman of Ways and Means and then, in descending order of precedence, by the other Deputy Speakers and the Panel of Chairmen. That would be a logical way of doing it. I agree that the Select Committee did not argue closely why it recommended against that, but it did recommend against it. I think that one of the reasons, although the Committee did not obviously adduce it, for not wanting to accept the hon. Member's proposal is that, as one sees in looking back over the history of the House, it would be a disadvantage that the Chairman referred to might well be among those who were most likely candidates for the Speakership. That might be a reason for preferring the Select Committee's proposals.

The hon. Member's next Amendment relates to the use of the word "continuously". This, I suppose, is a bit of the ancient usage which sometimes we would like to throw out, but here again I was not privy to the Committee's deliberations. Perhaps it is part of the wisdom of the House that although Select Committees normally publish the evidence they receive, they do not publish a transcript of their deliberations. This was the Committee's recommendation, however. No doubt it felt that this was the way in which the Father of the House was chosen and perhaps this would be the best way to define the Member with the longest service for this purpose. On the whole, I think we should stick to it.

I recognise that there might be a point in the hon. Member's third Amendment when he wishes to say that the person who takes the Chair cannot be nominated because he has accepted the Chair. I recognise that it could be embarrassing for the Member in the Chair to be nominated. On the whole, however, one cannot legislate in advance for every hypothetical circumstance. I imagine that what would have to be done in those circumstances would be to adjourn the House.

I could not, however, advise the House to accept that Amendment because, although it would be unlikely, it could happen that if we were ever to reach a deadlocked position the Member who had agreed to take the Chair might be the person whom, in the end, the House wished to choose. That might seem unlikely but it is possible. Under the hon. Member's Amendment, not only would that Member be the very person who would be debarred but the rest of us would be debarred from considering him.

Therefore, although not because the hon. Member's proposed Amendments are patently bad or can be argued against on strong logical grounds, I think that on the whole I would prefer the House to rest on the proposals of the Select Committee which were deliberated upon and, as far as we know, were genuinely supported by all the Members of the Committee. I hope, therefore, that the House will accept the Motion unamended.

Amendment negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That—

  1. (1) Whenever it is necessary to proceed forthwith to the choice of a new Speaker in consequence of Mr. Speaker having ceased for any reason to be a Member of this House, the Chair shall be taken by that Member, present in the House, and not being a Minister of the Crown, who has served for the longest period continuously as a Member of this House.
  2. (2) Whenever it is necessary to proceed to the choice of a new Speaker in consequence of an intimation to Her Majesty by Mr. Speaker of his wish to relinquish that office, then Mr. Speaker shall continue to take the Chair and shall perform the duties and exercise the authority of Speaker until a new Speaker has been chosen, whereupon he shall leave the Chair and shall cease to perform those duties and to exercise that authority and Mr. Speaker Elect shall take the Chair accordingly:
    • Provided that if when this House proceeds to choose a new Speaker, the unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker has been announced, Mr. Deputy Speaker shall forthwith leave the Chair and the Chair shall be taken in accordance with the provisions of paragraph (1) of this Order.
  3. (3) A Member taking the Chair under the the provisions of paragraph (1) of this Order shall enjoy all those powers which may be exercised by Mr. Speaker during proceedings under paragraph (2) thereof.
  4. (4) When a Motion has been made, in accordance with the provisions of this Order, That a certain Member do take the Chair of this House as Speaker, a question shall be proposed on that Motion and the question on any further such Motion shall be put as an amendment thereto.

That this Order be a Standing Order of the House.

Resolved,That whereas this House, in meeting to choose a Speaker, has heretofore proceeded in accordance with the ancient usages, it shall at every such meeting hereafter proceed in accordance with the Standing Orders, so far as they are applicable.—[Mr. R. Carr.]