Skip to main content

Speaker’s Statement

Volume 494: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2009

One of the pleasant side effects of a Speaker moving on is that his signature becomes a collectors’ item. I can inform the House that in the past few weeks I have signed several hundred bottles of Speaker Martin’s malt. The Chancellor will be pleased to know that some bottles are fetching as much as £150 on eBay. I wanted to help the Chancellor in stimulating the economy, but, as a lifelong teetotaller, I am surprised that I could do so in such a way.

I pay tribute to my staff in Speaker’s House: Angus Sinclair, the Speaker’s Secretary; Peter Barratt, the Assistant Secretary; Ian Davis, my Trainbearer; Chris Michael, the Diary Secretary; Eve Griffith-Okai; Katherine McCarthy and Abdulaye Balogun. In Speaker’s House, Mrs. Gloria Hawkes, Housekeeper, has always been there for us; a good friend. No Speaker could ask for a better or more dedicated staff. My three Deputies, Sir Alan Haselhurst, Sylvia Heal and Sir Michael Lord, have shown me first-class support, both inside and outside the House, where their expertise is plain to see. I also thank the members of the Chairmen’s Panel for their dedication in working night and day.

I must say thank you to the work force in the Palace of Westminster. It is plain for Members to see the Police, Security Officers and Badge Messengers going about their duties and their courtesy is renowned. We have a Library that is highly regarded by every democracy, and especially in the Commonwealth. It has adapted so well to our electronic age.

The Speaker’s Chaplain, Canon Robert Wright, has given me invaluable spiritual guidance. The Legal Services Office under Speaker’s Counsel does much that is unsung. The Clerks—men and women who are excellent procedural experts—give advice at our side every day we are in Session. They go out of their way to provide help and research. Their advice to emerging democracies in eastern Europe and beyond is invaluable and they are held in the highest regard. Hansard’s powers of concentration and accuracy are first class, and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Inter-Parliamentary Union do so much for us.

I must mention those men and women who run our catering outlets and those associated with the Department of Facilities who are behind the scenes cleaning, maintaining and quietly working hard in our support, so often without much recognition. And the same goes for those in the Fees Office—the Department of Resources, as it is now called.

Some of these men and women we do not often see or do not know by name. I have taken every opportunity to ask them to Speaker’s House when I can, to thank them for their hard work on your behalf. As testimony to their dedication, I recall that on 7 July 2005, many walked home or walked to work when their transport had stopped, and they made sure that they were at their work the next day. In the snowstorm that stopped London this year, many made that huge effort to walk in and do their work, and they are a credit to this House.

When I found out that the Palace of Westminster with its Pugin craftsmanship did not have apprentices, I proposed an apprenticeship scheme. All the trades of the House—the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, upholsterers and chefs—embarked on a work experience and apprenticeship scheme that has allowed local boys and girls to be trained to a very high skill, making them employable here in the House or outside in all parts of London. By the summer break, some of the apprentices will be receiving their final trades certificates. I am grateful to all those who are giving so many young people a good start in life.

When you charged me with the responsibility of caring for Speaker’s House, my wife Mary and I resolved to make this place of world heritage also a place of welcome. So many fellow Members and Members of the other place honoured us with their presence. It was a pleasure to receive leaders and Speakers from democracies throughout the world over the past eight years. I will leave Speaker’s House in the knowledge that I have opened the House to people from so many charities who have either wanted to promote their work or celebrate a special anniversary or occasion. It was always a joy to receive regular visits from the little children from LATCH, the leukaemia charity of Wales.

We welcomed many voluntary, professional and veterans associations, including the Royal College of Midwives. We also welcomed world war two veterans—some from HMS Speaker—and representatives of Marie Curie, which is a hospice in my constituency, the homeless charities, and the Huntington’s Disease Association.

As a man of Christian faith, I have been able to welcome other faith groups and was so pleased to initiate the annual Jewish celebration of Hanukkah taking place in Speaker’s House, bringing members of staff, Members of the House and others of this ancient faith together.

I want to mention a few recent issues that have troubled me greatly.

The police search of the office of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) led to my statement of 3 December last year, which I affirm today. I am pleased that the Government Chief Whip has assured me that an all-party inquiry of eight senior Members, with a member of the Opposition in the Chair and with no Government majority, will inquire into this matter, establish the truth of those events in full transparency, and allow all the lessons to be learned. I will give evidence to any depth required by the House.

Let me turn to Members’ expenses and allowances. This subject has caused understandable loss of public trust and confidence in us all. In my 30 years in this House, I have seen nothing like it. Let me say again to the men and women of this country that I am sorry.

But also let me remind this House that it passed up an opportunity to deal with this emotive issue less than a year ago. In January 2008, I was tasked by the House with reviewing Members’ allowances. I pay tribute to my colleagues—the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) and the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey)—on the Members Estimate Committee, who worked very hard to produce detailed and thorough proposals. They took a wide range of evidence and produced a report that was blunt and straightforward, and whose 18 separate recommendations were presented to the House on 3 July 2008.

In a letter to me on 30 June last year, Sir Christopher Kelly, Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, commented that the Committee was

“pleased to see the proposals for a more robust system of audit and assurance, based for the most part on claims backed by receipts, and by the implied acceptance of complete transparency about what is claimed. Taken together, these seem to us to be significant steps towards the establishment of the robust regime that MPs and the taxpayer have the right to expect”.

The response of the House was deeply disappointing. Half of all Members did not attend to vote, and more than half of those who did vote rejected the proposals. I regretted that then: I deeply regret it now, and I expect that many Members of the House now share that regret.

Of course, the recommendations would not have solved every difficulty, but they would have ended many practices for which Members have been attacked in recent weeks.

Some proposals have been seized on by party leaders who have come up with their own solutions but, by and large, those solutions were in my Committee’s 18 recommendations. They would have stopped claims for furniture and household goods, ended outer-London Members claiming for the cost of second homes, introduced a robust new system of internal and—crucially—external audit, and reduced the receipt level to zero.

I wish with all my heart that those recommendations had won the confidence of the House last July. And I wish that party leaders had shown then some of the leadership that they have shown now.

Tradition has it that such votes are not whipped, but this does not remove the responsibility of leaders to speak up for common sense and for the obvious wishes of the country in seeking necessary reform. We should have done that last year.

As to the legal challenges made to the Freedom of Information Act, as Speaker I could see that some Members wanted complete and total transparency, while others strongly argued that the information should only be to a certain degree. The representations to me came from every party, and from every level of those parties.

I listened to these representations but I was also aware that, in an important area of law such as this, the decision of a very new Information Tribunal to publish the details of 14 Members of Parliament had to be tested in a higher court, because its decision would affect all 646 Members. What we now know is that transparency will be the House’s best safeguard.

On 4 May 1979, the people of Glasgow, Springburn—now Glasgow, North-East—entrusted me with the greatest honour of my life when I was returned as their Member of Parliament. Glasgow is the place where I served my apprenticeship as a young metalworker, and where I joined the trade union, of which I am still proud to be a member. It is also where I married my wife, Mary, and where we raised our family. My thoughts go back to the fact that every member of my family, including my son Paul and daughter Mary, have been cared for so well at Stobhill hospital, which, over the years, I have been able to campaign for on the Floor of this House.

Of the many issues affecting my constituency, housing has been a fundamental problem, so it has been exciting and rewarding to have been able to engage in the early years of the new community-based housing associations. In 30 years, their growing strength has brought about dignity and comfort for many men, women and children who would otherwise have faced damp and inadequate dwellings. Furthermore, they have spurred the growth of excellent local institutions, community halls and sheltered housing for our elderly.

As the House will appreciate, I took pride, throughout my time as a Back Bencher and as Speaker, in holding surgeries and taking up matters that were important to individual organisations, and all the people of my constituency. I must record and give thanks for the support of my agent, Councillor Gerry Leonard, my constituency assistant, Mrs. Georgie Rainey, and my lifelong friend, Mr. Barry Reamsbottom, who helps me here in London. They have always shown unfailing support in the constituency, and I am honoured to have worked with them.

The constituency will always be home in every sense for me. There can be no greater honour than bringing to this House the richness of that experience, the privilege of representing friends and neighbours, and the values of family and community that I hold dear. To all those good people of Glasgow, North-East, and Springburn before it, let me say this: I will forever be in your debt for giving me your friendship, support and trust.

I have enjoyed every day of coming to this House. It was a great honour to be invited by Speaker Weatherill to be on his panel. That took me to the chairmanship of the Scottish Grand Committee, travelling the length and breadth of Scotland bringing Parliament to the people. I then became Chairman of the Administration Committee, and then Deputy Speaker.

In 2000, you entrusted me with the great office of Speaker. I have been so happy to serve you, and to represent the House at home and abroad. I was honoured to be the first Speaker to pay an official visit to Poland, a country that I always hoped and prayed would be free of communism one day. Because of my political neutrality as a Speaker, I must withdraw from the natural comradeship of this place and be a little isolated in Speaker’s House. I raise that point because I would like to thank my wife Mary for coming to London each week, when her natural instinct was to remain in her beloved Glasgow. Without intruding in my business, she has always been there in support, and she has done so much to make Speaker’s House a place of welcome, planning and working on official and unofficial events.

Though this Parliament is at its lowest ebb, I can testify to the goodness of the vast majority of members of this House. I have had the privilege, often late at night, during Adjournment debates to witness Members from every party, including minority parties, raising the problem of one sole constituent who is perhaps experiencing a health or social security problem. Those Members were using their right to question Government Ministers. Most strikingly, when working miners suffered the cruel effects of industrial diseases, there was no shortage of Members to make demands of Ministers, asking them to give those good, hard-working people compensation.

Members regularly acted as a group, showing tenacity when campaigning for those whom they represent, and those who have been denied human rights in countries abroad. Let us not forget that it was this Parliament that achieved what seemed impossible: all the political parties of Northern Ireland took huge risks in setting aside their long-held differences, and in doing so they worked with all the political parties in this House, achieving a peace that has brought harmony to Northern Ireland. It was a proud moment for me when I welcomed the Irish Taoiseach on behalf of this House, and his welcome was that given to a friend. That was this Parliament at its very best.

There are those who will remind us of our unworthy moments, but when I am asked, I will tell of the goodness that exists in this House. I will leave this House with fond and moving memories. One of those memories is of meeting a Holocaust survivor called Rosa. She came to this country in 1946 after she had endured the horrors of Auschwitz and a long forced march back to Germany. She raised her family in Britain, and she would say about this Parliament, “That building gave me my freedom.” Rosa held this House in high regard for perfectly justifiable reasons. The House must work tirelessly to restore the high esteem that she saw in it. Knowing you all personally, I know that you will do that, so that the people of the United Kingdom will have, once again, a parliamentary democracy that they can regard as the best in the world.

In the work ahead, you will be criticised strongly, particularly for this sad period. When scorned, take as comfort the words that Robert Burns wrote to those whom he described as “The Rigidly Righteous”:

“Then gently scan your brother man,

Still gentler sister woman;

Tho’ they may go a little wrong,

To step aside is human.”