Sir George speaks on Electing the Speaker
22 Mar 2001
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), although I do not agree with what he said about our debate or the report. We have had a serious, high-quality debate on a serious, high-quality report, marked by what may turn out to be swan songs from two distinguished parliamentarians: my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), whose work on the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons has made him an outstanding servant of the House, and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). There is simply no other right hon. Member like him. I have never heard him make a bad speech, and this afternoon he made a glorious speech on the House, a subject about which he feels strongly. For consistency, passion, eloquence, originality and sincerity, he is impossible to beat.
I want to make a brief contribution, and shall begin by complimenting the Select Committee, which made a thorough analysis of the problem, saw a wide range of witnesses, many of whom are in the Chamber, and produced a well-argued report. As Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has done a service to the House. I compliment him on performing a post mortem on his own candidacy as well as that of many others.

I agree with the Committee that change is necessary; the previous system was simply not designed for the circumstances that confronted us five months ago. As my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield said, it ran the risk of placing premiums on tactical voting and the order in which candidates were presented. What happened in October was not a shambles. In some ways, it was no more unusual than other quaint procedures in the House, but it was certainly not ideal and the system needs an overhaul.

I agree that the outcome would have been the same regardless. There was a certain inevitability as the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) dragged the tumbrels to the guillotine and candidate after candidate was dismissed. However, the conclusion that the outcome would have been the same sits uneasily with the report's subsequent recommendation of a secret vote in future. I shall return to that in a moment. Personally, I am against the hustings for the reasons set out in your memorandum, Mr. Deputy Speaker; it runs the risk of an auction for the Speakership.

I am sure that all those who stood were grateful to their proposers and seconders, but I do not think that they influenced the outcome. I do not think that the candidates speeches influenced the outcome either. Again, that is not unprecedented in the Chamber. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon that all candidates should speak and formally present themselves to the House; that is important and symbolic.

The controversy is about the proposition that there should be a secret vote in future which, if I may use an economist's phrase, hits me right on my indifference curve. I do not go along with the argument that Speakers will discriminate against those who do not vote for them. The risk that the opposite will happen is more likely. Speakers will overcompensate, as home referees often do regarding the other side. I understand the arguments for a secret vote, but my view is that while a secret vote is as valid as an open vote, it is not as valuable. The argument for a secret ballot rests on the proposition that people will vote differently in secret from how they vote in public. It may make life more difficult for the Speaker if there is subsequently a perceived loss of confidence in him. Support for the Speaker and his authority may be greater if the ballot is open, not closed.

If there are valid arguments for a secret ballot, why is the Division to re-elect the Speaker at the beginning of a Parliament--when a Division can be called--open and not secret? Exactly the same arguments could be applied to that. What is to happen if there is a censure motion? I assume that there will be an open vote, as there is at the moment. Having conceded the argument on electing the Speaker in private in the report, the Committee may not have followed the logic through to other circumstances in which the authority of the Speaker may come into question.
I hope that we can dispense with delay after the election, and therefore agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). I am not sure why we had to hang around for three hours while the Great Seal was dusted down. I hope that we can streamline that process and make it clearer that the authority of the House is supreme.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield about continuity of office and having a different procedure for re-electing a sitting Speaker. It is not right that the Speaker's position should be put into play every time that there is a general election. I therefore accept the argument for a different, streamlined procedure when a sitting Speaker is re-elected.

Mr. Bercow: At the beginning of his speech, my right hon. Friend said how strongly he approved of the speech of our right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery). Did he agree with our right hon. Friend, as I did, that it is one thing to notify the sovereign of our decision, but another to seek approval for it?

Sir George Young: I agree with the consensus in the House that one needs to remove ambiguity about who is charge of the process.

My final point is about paragraph 86, which I regard as the most important paragraph in the whole report. It states:

"Had time allowed we would have wished to consider a number of connected matters as a follow-up . . . for instance, the role and functions of the Speaker".

That is expressed as a hope, rather than a recommendation, but I hope that it will be followed up.
The House may be aware that the Hansard Society will soon produce a report on parliamentary scrutiny. There is widespread concern on both sides of the House about the role of the House. Indeed, that was part of the context in which the debate on the speakership took place last year. I understand all the difficulties involved in an inquiry into the role and functions of the Speaker, who is both the servant of the House and, in many ways, its master. As several hon. Members have said, if the terms of trade are to tilt back to Parliament from the Executive--as many of us believe they should--the Speaker is going to be involved. I am sure that the Speaker would want to be assisted by an inquiry by the House into that important subject.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to paragraph 86, which deals with future inquiries. May I repeat the Committee's strong view that, had there been time in this Parliament, we would have undertaken an inquiry into the Speaker's role and functions? However, it was clear that the House wished us to reach a decision on the procedure governing the election, which is why we have a rather short-circuited inquiry. We cannot bind our successors, but we hope that they will take that up.

Sir George Young: On a consensual note, I conclude by expressing the strong hope that that will be the first task of a new Parliament. It could set the context for the on-going debate about the terms of trade.
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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015