The Speaker's Committee

Part of Orders of the Day — Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 14th February 2000.

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Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire 6:45 pm, 14th February 2000

The Minister is in extremely conciliatory mood, and I hope that he will respond in the same spirit and with alacrity to these amendments, to which the official Opposition attach enormous importance.

We heard protestations earlier from the Under-Secretary about the absolute need for the commission to be wholly independent. That theme has been reiterated throughout our debates, and it is regarded as of great importance by hon. Members on both sides of the House. However, that principle does not sit well with the Government's proposed membership of the Speaker's Committee.

The Neill report makes no call for such a Committee, but we believe that the Government are right to have included it in the Bill. The explanatory notes to the Bill say that the Speaker's Committee will have general oversight of the exercise of the Commission's functions and, in particular, responsibility for approving its budget and five-year corporate plan. If ever there were a need for a body—[Interruption.] I had hoped that I might have the support of the Liberal Democrats on this amendment. If ever a body needed to be entirely respected for its impartiality, that body would be the Speaker's Committee. Yet the Government propose a Committee including two Government Ministers, the Home Secretary and the Minister for Local Government. The other members will be the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee"— almost inevitably a member of the governing party— and six Members of the House of Commons appointed by the Speaker. We may expect those six Members to be selected in a ratio that reflects the majority of the Government of the day. I cast no aspersions on anyone by saying that such a committee would not enjoy respect and support across the House for its total impartiality on electoral matters.

We propose that the Speaker's Committee should replicate the Commission of the House of Commons. It would consist of the Speaker of the House, the Leader of the House, a nominee of the Leader of the Opposition—probably, though not necessarily, the shadow Leader of the House—and three hon. Members appointed by the House of Commons, none of whom would be a Minister of the Crown. We have recent memories of the House exercising its role in deciding who should be a commissioner—a debate in which the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) took a prominent part. We believe that such a Speaker's Committee would command wide respect for its impartiality.

I cannot for the life of me see why the Government should not accept the amendment. We do not propose any differentiation of functions. We do not suggest that the committee should do anything other than what the Government have suggested. We suggest, however, that the Speaker's Committee should actually include the Speaker.

Many precedents exist for the Speaker's participation in committees and commissions with an electoral remit. In 1908, the Speaker played a prominent part in a royal commission on electoral reform. There was a Speaker's conference on electoral reform in 1917, and further Speaker's conferences in 1930, 1943–44, 1965 to 1968, 1972 to 1974 and 1977–78. The Speaker also chairs the House of Commons Commission, the membership of which would be replicated on the Speaker's Committee if our amendment were accepted. The fact that the Speaker takes the chair gives the Commission special authority. In the same way, the new Committee would achieve special authority if the Speaker chaired it.

The House perhaps takes greater pride in the impartiality of the Speaker than it does in anything else. It matters not in which part of the House we sit that, when a Speaker is elected at the beginning of a new Parliament, that man or woman is invested with the authority of the House and respected for total impartiality. The first thing a new Speaker does is to renounce any previous political allegiance. Madam Speaker used to be a member of the Government party; she is no longer. The fact of her former membership causes not the slightest concern on the Opposition side, any more than it did when we were in Government while she was Speaker. She is universally respected—inside and out of the House—as a person of total impartiality, as was her predecessor, who happened to come from the Conservative Benches. So it has been for nearly 200 years, and so, I hope, it will always be.

The Committee would be invested with extra authority if it were chaired by the Speaker. If any committee deserves chairmanship by a person of total probity and impartiality, it is the Committee that the Bill would establish. I urge the Minister to continue with the admirable mood of conciliation that he has displayed this afternoon, and to accept the amendment.