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Tributes (Speaker Weatherill)

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:17 pm on 10th May 2007.

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Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams Labour, Swansea West 12:17 pm, 10th May 2007

I speak not only on my own behalf but, I hope, on behalf of many of Jack's ex-colleagues who would wish they could be here today to express their sympathies to the family. Like them, I remember him as an outstanding Speaker and, above all, as a delightful man.

Jack and I came into the House together in 1964, although we were each unaware of the other for a long time. Although I discovered this only the other day, we both ascended—if that is the appropriate term—to the Front Bench in 1967. I was a little green Under-Secretary in the Department of Economic Affairs, while he was a junior Whip. It is often the case that people can be together in the House for years and know each other to say hello without their paths crossing politically for long time. That was the case with Jack and me.

Our paths coincided, rather than collided, on an occasion that I will never forget, although I will come to that in a moment. I used to do the mischief job of trying to mobilise what the Leader of the House called the rather rowdy element on the Opposition Benches. Our job was to try to claim prime time. It was a matter not of being rowdy but of trying to use the procedures of the House of Commons to secure the time straight after questions when everyone was still in the Gallery. We used points of order and got people to table private notice questions that were backed up with requests under Standing Order No. 24. We were using the procedures of the House to try to seize the time when we still had a press audience. At the time, he was the Speaker and I was doing a massively less reputable job in the House, but I will never forget the time when our paths coincided.

Those of us who were here at the time will remember that Mrs. Thatcher did not often come to the House to take part in debates, although she took part in Prime Minister's questions. On one very big occasion—it was a debate on the Wright affair, which was a great scandal that had run for a long time in the press—the Chamber was absolutely packed. It was so packed that when I came in, slightly late, I could not even get on to the Front Bench; I had to sit on the steps between the Front Bench and the Bench behind it. During Mrs. Thatcher's presentation, various requests for information were made, and she insisted that she could not answer because there was a case under way in Australia and the matter was therefore sub judice. I was puzzled, because that did not quite fit in with my understanding of the rule, but I was not sure about the matter. Even Roy Jenkins, who was speaking from the third row below the gangway, did not challenge her, so I thought that I had better check.

I left through the Door of the Chamber and came down to the Table, where the ever-helpful Clerks confirmed my suspicion. I came back, muscled my way on to the Front Bench and got up and made a point of order, in which I asked Jack, as Speaker, to rule on whether the sub judice rule applied to a case in the Australian courts, or whether it applied only in this country. He confirmed that the rule was that it applied only in this country. The Prime Minister made no secret of the fact that she rather disagreed with him and she set about him, to some extent, so I jumped up on another point of order and said, "Isn't it normal to apologise when you've misled the House?"

Some time later, I met Jack in connection with another issue—in fact, it related to the decision to move the time when points of order could be raised from straight after questions to after statements. In our conversation, I apologised for the grief that I had caused him on that day, and a broad grin broke out on his face. He said, "Don't worry, I used to do the same job when I was in the Whips Office." He used to mobilise the Maxwell-Hyslops of the House—not many of us will remember him—and other Conservative Members who were discontented with the then Labour Government. Jack said, "In fact, when I did that job, I had a nickname." He told me the nickname, but unfortunately the proprieties of the House will not allow me to repeat it, and if I tried to, you would stop me, Mr. Speaker. If anyone wants to know it, the obituary in the online edition of The Independent carries it.

Jack was proud of the role that he played on behalf of the Opposition. In a way—I have said this on previous occasions, and not in a joking way—it would be a good thing if every Member could serve in opposition as soon as they came into the House, because it is in opposition that Members learn what accountability is about and why Ministers need to be brought to book. Today, I remember a fair, kind and humorous man, but also a very firm Speaker. My sympathies and thoughts, and those of so many of his ex-colleagues, are with his family today.