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Election of the Deputy Speakers

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2010

I beg to move,

That this House approves the Fourth Report from the Procedure Committee of Session 2008-09 (House of Commons Paper No. 1080); endorses the principle that the Deputy Speakers should be chosen through a ballot of the whole House; and endorses the preparation by the Procedure Committee of detailed proposals for the election of the Deputy Speakers and the consideration by the Committee of the introduction of term-limits for the Speaker and Deputy Speakers.

The motion on the Order Paper has been brought before the House at the request of the Procedure Committee. The Leader of the House is therefore facilitating that request, which I believe has cross-party support. On 2 July last year, Mr. Speaker proposed that Deputy Speakers should be elected. The Procedure Committee then conducted an inquiry, and on 2 November published its report, “Election of the Deputy Speakers: Principles”. In the report the Committee recognised that further work was needed, and before taking that work forward, it asked the House to endorse the principles that it has identified: that the Deputy Speakers should be elected; that they should be elected by the whole House in a way that ensures that the party balance within the House is respected; that the Procedure Committee should prepare detailed proposals for the House to consider at the start of the next Parliament; and that the Procedure Committee should examine the idea of adopting term limits for the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers, and make recommendations. I commend the work of the Procedure Committee in producing its report.

In giving consideration to the acceptance of these principles, there are two important concerns. First, the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers clearly need to work as a team; therefore, although we have had the very successful election of a Speaker, there will be issues of compromising that teamwork if elections for Deputy Speaker take place. Secondly, on term limits for Speakers and Deputy Speakers, the House should give consideration to the impact that that might have on the ability of the Speaker’s team of Deputy Speakers to be sufficiently independent of the House to be able to maintain its proper discipline and order.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I am sure that the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who is here with us, has heard it. However, it would not necessarily be appropriate for me to respond, as I am moving this motion on behalf of the Leader of the House, to facilitate the further work of the Procedure Committee in taking it forward.

Will the Minister help me to understand this clearly? In her speech she said that we were accepting the principles; subsequently, in answer to my intervention, she said that this was purely a matter of process. Could she explain whether in supporting the motion we are accepting the principles of elections and term limits?

As I said, we are accepting the idea that the Procedure Committee should examine the issue of adopting term limits. That is not to say that we are accepting term limits. We are adopting the principle as laid out but there is further work to do, and the Procedure Committee will be taking that forward. I hope that that is clear to the hon. Gentleman. If the House agrees to the motion the Procedure Committee will produce a further report. The motion simply asks the House to endorse this decision, and I commend it to the House.

The motion reflects changing times, and Conservative Members support it. As the Deputy Speakers serve the whole House, there is merit in the argument that the whole House should have a say in who they are. Moreover, this is consistent with the arguments for reform of the House of Commons, in that there are proposals for the election of the Chairmen of Select Committees.

By passing the motion, we will allow the Procedure Committee to continue urgent work to create the mechanism required for the election of Deputy Speakers. It will not be an easy task, as there are several matters to consider, not least to ensure that the party balance is maintained with the final result. Given that the aim is to ensure that the proposals are in place for the start of the new Parliament later this year, I wish the Procedure Committee well with all its deliberations.

I, too, support the motion. It is sensible for the Procedure Committee to be given the green light to proceed with its deliberations. I had the great pleasure of discussing these matters with members of that Committee this afternoon, and I know that they are taking great care in looking at all aspects of the issues. The issues are complex; deciding the details of the scheme that will be put before the House is not as simple as might at first be perceived, and the Committee members are taking great care to consider all the implications. Nevertheless, it is right that today the House as a whole should give its imprimatur to the direction of travel that the Procedure Committee is taking.

The one caveat that I enter is that there will be an impact on some of the procedure that will be needed in respect of the exact role of the Deputy Speaker. We are not, of course, discussing the Wright Committee today, but if its proposals for the future role of Deputy Speakers are adopted by the House in respect of giving the Chairman of Ways and Means greater influence over the programme and business of the House, that will have an impact on the eventual proposals put before the House. I am a little worried about the timing of those two factors and the impending general election. It would be greatly to the advantage of the House to have the matter determined before Dissolution, so that the new Parliament has the opportunity to elect the Deputy Speakers in good order at the start of the new Session. With that one caveat, I shall certainly advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the motion.

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), her shadow, and the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), for their support for the motion. In answer to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I should say that the Procedure Committee shares his view that this matter will best be settled as soon as possible—certainly during the lifetime of this Parliament. The Procedure Committee is currently meeting weekly to try to meet that goal.

As has been said, the motion is an endorsement of the principle of election for Deputy Speakers. I say to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) that I suppose some academic might say that we already have a system of election in place, in that the motion that comes before the House for their appointment may be voted on, and is amendable. However, the last time such a Division took place was in 1962. The downside of our current procedure is that such a motion is tabled without notice, so no Member in any part of the House has any time to reflect on whether he or she wishes to support the names being put forward. Indeed, on the day when it normally occurs—the day of state opening—there is no Order Paper. Members do not even get five minutes’ thinking time, because the motion is moved without any notice at all. Some may say that the nominations are cloaked in secrecy.

So the procedure is not transparent. However, I have to say that it has worked well in the past, and has delivered a number of excellent Deputy Speakers; I include the present incumbents in that description. However, I do think that it is now time to update our procedure to make it more transparent, and to give Members time to think about their choice.

I do not intend to dwell in detail on the proposals because, as the Deputy Leader of the House has made clear, the motion is an endorsement of principle. If the House supports the motion, it will have an opportunity to go into greater detail at a later date. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) mentioned term limits; I should tell him that all the motion does is authorise the Procedure Committee to give “consideration” to the introduction of term limits. If the motion passes, the matter will not be concluded one way or the other today. The motion asks, and authorises, the Procedure Committee to look into the matter and make recommendations to the House.

Today is not the day for detailed debate. The motion merely endorses the work we have done so far and authorises the Procedure Committee to continue. I would like to place on the record my thanks to all members of the Committee, of all parties, for the excellent work they have done so far. I support the motion, and urge the House to do so.

As a member of the Procedure Committee, I follow its Chairman in welcoming the fact that the Government have laid this motion before us today. I welcome this opportunity for the House to endorse, as I hope it will, the Committee’s proposals, enabling it to continue to examine the ways in which we can make a reality of the election of Deputy Speakers, following and building on the considerable success of the House’s new procedures for the election of the Speaker.

In response to the comments of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), I re-emphasise that a number of rather difficult matters of detail remain before the Committee. It is important that we continue, as the Chairman said, to meet weekly to deal with those matters, and we hope to bring some satisfactory proposals before the House in the not too distant future.

Of course, this issue is not unrelated to those dealt with by the Wright Committee; indeed, the issue was before that Committee, which referred it to the Procedure Committee for its consideration. I hope the House has an early opportunity not only to debate the Wright Committee’s recommendations, which need to be seen alongside those of the Procedure Committee, but to decide on them in a positive way.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, for explaining the difference between the two parts of this process. The House will want to agree the specifics of the preparation of detailed proposals for the election of Deputy Speakers, and he is right to draw our attention to the fact that his Committee will be considering the introduction of term limits. My view is that that will be difficult to achieve successfully. I can see why it is in the interests of the House for there to be a voluntary change of Speaker. It should be in the middle of a Parliament, although I can see why a Speaker might say that it would be more convenient for a term to end at the end of a Parliament, so that the change of Speaker does not cause a by-election. There may be a way of resolving that that the Committee could consider. Generally, it is better to trust people’s judgment.

My second caution is that although the question of having what is called gender balance has arisen in the Committee, I see no reason why, if this House is two-thirds male and one-third female, for example, we should not have two female Deputy Speakers and only one male Deputy Speaker. I see no problem with that. It would not be gender balance; it would be the consequence of the way people were chosen—or, under these proposals, elected. My gentle suggestion for the Committee to consider is that the first man and the first woman with the greatest number of votes could become Deputy Speakers, and that the third Deputy Speaker be the other candidate with the greatest number of votes, whether they get more or less than one of the other two. There are various ways of dealing with the matter, but having a rigid balance, or rigid proportions, strikes me as unnecessary.

The other issue in my mind—besides recognising, as others have, the dedication of those who serve as Deputy Speakers and Chairman of Ways and Means—is that the House has been very lucky with those who have been prepared to hold those posts. Each of those positions is a position of service, rather than of ambition. That is one of the things that make this House rather endearing, and rather more effective than if all of us tried to go for such positions because we thought we needed the prominence.

I want to make just one brief point, which I hope will be listened to. We are accepting the principle of a more obvious democratic process—voting for Deputy Speakers—but I raise this one concern. It is difficult and dangerous to appear to be talking in this way about moving towards further democracy within the House, but I am concerned that the election of a Deputy Speaker could be used as a means of leverage—a means of punishment of, or expression of a lack of confidence in, a sitting Speaker. That is one possible danger.

Under the current process, although the appointment of Deputy Speakers is at the discretion of the House, they are very much part of a team. I can imagine that the stresses and strains of being part of a Speakership team are significant, and it is important not to get ourselves into a situation in which the House might elect a Deputy Speaker against the wishes of a Speaker with whom the House had fallen out.

Question put and agreed to.