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Tributes (Speaker Weatherill)

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:09 pm on 10th May 2007.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal 12:09 pm, 10th May 2007

As I said earlier, I am extremely grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me and many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House the opportunity to express our condolences to Lady Weatherill and to pay tribute to the memory of Jack Weatherill, as so many of us knew him.

The most important and fundamental role of the House is to hold the Executive to account. The Speaker, above all, is here to protect and enhance the duty of all Members to fulfil that important role and to defend the rights and privileges of individual Members representing their constituents. From the moment that Jack Weatherill took the Speaker's Chair in 1983, he never forgot the duties of the House or the importance of his position in sustaining the democratic process.

Many of the tributes to and obituaries of Jack Weatherill have highlighted his kindness. He was indeed a kind man, as you and I, Mr. Speaker—we came into the House just four years before he assumed the august office of Speaker—have good reason to remember. Other obituaries have highlighted his professionalism and quick wit. Both were absolutely the case. He was always on top of procedure and Standing Orders—and sometimes, when necessary, individual Members. Many of us who were around at the time will remember receiving the sharp end of his tongue.

Of all Jack Weatherill's qualities, the one that I wish to emphasise is his courage. In the early and mid-1980s, politics in this country was raw and the divisions between the political parties were bitter. Without television, as all of us who were here at the time will recall, this place could be like a bear pit. The external divisions of British politics ran very deep inside the House. Jack Weatherill had to control the House. He also had to resist the ire of Ministers—I am not making a party point because you also know, Mr. Speaker, that that is a function of all good Speakers—to ensure that the fundamental role of holding the Government to account could be fulfilled and so that Members on both sides of the House could give vent to their anger.

Jack Weatherill was a traditionalist. He was the last Speaker to wear the full-bottomed wig and while he sometimes used to complain about it, he continued with the tradition. However, he was also very alive to the need to modernise this place. He embraced the idea of television and was the Speaker in the Chair when television was first introduced. Through that, he became the first Speaker to become not just a national but an international figure. He thus enhanced the reputation of the House throughout the world. Although the notices that we receive for our performances in the House probably mark us down compared with our predecessors, the House is still regarded as one of the most vibrant democratic Chambers in the world. For that, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the pioneering work of Jack Weatherill, who ensured that the introduction of television meant that Members were better behaved and properly reflected the dignity of the House.

There is much else that I could say about Jack Weatherill, such as his contribution to his party in which he had a distinguished career before he took the Speaker's Chair. In the other place, after he left the Chair, he pursued many great and small causes. I will mention just one such cause, which goes back to what I said about his courage. He had a profound commitment to the sub-continent of India. He had great affection for the place and he was ready to speak up for constituents and those who had made this place their home at a time when doing so was far less popular than it is today.

We send our condolences to Lady Weatherill and her family. We salute a great Speaker and mourn his loss.