Election of Speaker

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:12 pm on 23rd October 2000.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield 3:12 pm, 23rd October 2000

I shall continue the theme that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) has introduced. This will be one of my last speeches in the House of Commons before I go into politics and, if I may, I want to put to the House my fears for this place. I do not attribute them to any one Government or any one Prime Minister, and I do not want that to be misunderstood.

The people who elect us to Parliament ask us certain questions. They ask, "When we go to war, do you have a say in it?" and the answer is that we do not. We were not consulted, in terms of a vote, about the bombing in Iraq or Kosovo—[Interruption.] No, statements were made. There was also Sierra Leone. That is a royal prerogative. We could not even start electing a Speaker without instructions from the Queen, so the royal prerogative is very strong.

Then we come to the laws made in Brussels. I have been on the Council of Ministers, and was its President once. When Ministers go to Brussels and agree to laws in secret, they repeal the laws that we have made and we have no say, either before the Minister goes or when he comes back.

Patronage is on a massive scale. Every Prime Minister has done it—almost 1,000 peers have been made by Prime Ministers since the war. There is no consultation with the House of Commons about the patronage exercised by the Prime Minister of the day. We must face the fact that we are, to a large extent, an impotent House of Commons. I can give a practical example of that. We have been in recess since July, and during that time there has been a fuel crisis, a Danish no vote, the collapse of the euro and a war in the middle east, but what is our business tomorrow? The Insolvency Bill [Lords]. It ought to be called the Bankruptcy Bill [Commons], because we play no role.

I am very concerned because many young people believe that this is an impotent Parliament. They go on the streets in Prague or Seattle rather than come to the Palace of Westminster, because we do not do the job that we were elected to do. We have a president, and we do not have a House of Representatives.

I fear that, in the world in which we live—I lay no blame at anyone's door, because that is not my purpose, certainly not during this period of my political life—globalisation means that multinational companies have much more power than countries. Ford is bigger than South Africa; Toyota is bigger than Norway. When I went to America last year to celebrate my golden wedding anniversary, I met an old Governor of Ohio, who said "You will never have democracy when big business buys both parties and expects a pay-off, whoever wins."

I believe that it is our job to reverse that. It is for the Commons to decide. Whoever becomes Speaker—I think all the candidates have qualities that they would bring to the job—we must use this period, that of the first Parliament of the 21st century, to restore the power of the people who elected us. We must not be content to be managed and to become a sort of audience, as if we were on the BBC's "Question Time".

For that reason, I hope that some part of the debate will go beyond the personal qualities of which we have heard from proposers and seconders, to the whole central question of whether the House of Commons can survive if it allows itself to be powerless in the face of the really big decisions that will influence the future of this country.