I beg to move
That this House takes note of paragraphs 21 to 28 of the Seventh Report of the Procedure Committee, Matters for the Procedure Committee in the 2015 Parliament, HC 1121, concerning the trial of a three day deadline for the tabling of amendments and new clauses/schedules at report stage of all programmed bills; and approves the Committee’s recommendation in paragraph 28 that the trial should be extended for the duration of the first session of the 2015 Parliament, and extended to amendments and new clauses/schedules in Committee of the whole House of all bills and at report stage of un-programmed bills.
With this it will be convenient to debate the following:
Motion on pay for Petitions Committee Chair—
That the Resolution of the House of 19 March 2013, relating to Positions for which additional salaries are payable for the purposes of Section 4A(2) of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, be amended by inserting after “the Liaison Committee”, “the Petitions Committee,”.
Motion on elections for positions in the House—
That this House notes the recommendation of the Procedure Committee in its Fifth Report of Session 2010-12, 2010 Elections for positions in the House, that the House should be invited to decide between a secret ballot or open division where the question at the start of a new Parliament that a former Speaker take the Chair is challenged, and accordingly makes the following change to Standing Orders, with effect from the beginning of the new Parliament:
Standing Order 1A (Re-election of former Speaker) Line 11, at end insert—
“(1A) If that question is contested, it shall be determined by secret ballot, to take place on the same day under arrangements made by the Member presiding, who shall announce the result of the ballot to the House as soon as is practicable.”
Motion on Deputy Speakers—
That, at the start of the 2015 Parliament, the Speaker may nominate no more than three Members as Deputy Speakers to serve until the House has elected Deputy Speakers in accordance with the provisions of Standing Order No. 2A; and that the Members so nominated shall exercise all the powers vested in the Chairman of Ways and Means as Deputy Speaker.
We have already anticipated some of this debate during the urgent question, but I rise to speak to the motions standing in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House.
The motions facilitate making decisions on areas which, to have any meaningful usefulness, need to be decided before the early days of the next Parliament. They include matters raised in the Procedure Committee’s latest report “Matters for the Procedure Committee in the 2015 Parliament”, published last week. The report specifically called for a decision of the House before the end of this Parliament on the issue of extending the trial of new arrangements for programming legislation. Let me deal with that motion first.
The House agreed on 8 May last year to the trial of new arrangements with regard to programming legislation, following the Procedure Committee report on the same subject, published in December 2013. The arrangements included bringing forward the deadline for tabling amendments, new clauses and schedules from two days to three days before the day on which the debate takes place. The Procedure Committee agreed to review the operation of the arrangements at the end of the current Session. That review, aided by a memorandum produced by the Public Bill Office, is summarised in last week’s Procedure Committee report. The report noted that the trial had not produced very much evidence on the impact of the change, and therefore recommended that the trial should be continued in the first Session of the next Parliament. The Procedure Committee also recommended that the deadline be extended to cover amendments in Committee of the whole House for all Bills, and on Report for unprogrammed bills.
As the Leader of the House will recall, the purpose of changing the arrangements for timetabling amendments was to facilitate debate on non-Government amendments in order to democratise the Report stage and consideration of Lords amendments. Will he explain why he is continuing with only one part of the experiment, and—if I may say so—not going all the way to facilitate proper consideration on Report?
We have generally had a great number of days for Report, and we worked closely with the Opposition on that in the last Parliament. We are implementing the recommendations of the Procedure Committee—the part that the Committee recommended should be implemented before the end of the Parliament, which is today. That does not exclude further changes in the new Parliament, but if the motion is agreed to we will implement the urgent recommendation of the Procedure Committee. The Committee also recommended that the deadline be extended to cover amendments in Committee of the whole House for all Bills, and at Report for unprogrammed Bills. Those are further improvements to the procedures.
I understand that the delay in tabling these matters was that the Government needed to see whether any Lords amendments would be sent to the House today. What would have happened to this amendment to our Standing Orders if Lords amendments had been sent to this House? Would it have been held over until the next Parliament?
It would certainly have been much more difficult to do it, so the absence of Lords amendments made a big change and allowed us to consider more motions than might otherwise have been the case. On that issue I am happy to facilitate bringing the motion to the House for decision before the end of this Parliament, as requested by the Procedure Committee. I hope the House will support the extension of the trial in the way outlined. It will then be for the Procedure Committee in the next Parliament to evaluate the trial further, before bringing it to the House for a decision on whether the changes should be made permanent.
Given that the right hon. Gentleman told the House that he tabled these motions on the basis of representations by anonymous Members of Parliament whom he was not prepared to name, is he proposing further changes so that in future amendments and resolutions can be tabled anonymously by Members of Parliament and considered by the House?
I think that would be too much of a revolutionary change, but the particular change I am talking about was recommended before the end of the Parliament by the Procedure Committee.
The second issue, which I shall cover briefly, concerns the pay of the Petitions Committee Chair. On 24 February the House agreed the Standing Order changes necessary for the Petitions Committee, recommended by the Procedure Committee as part of a collaborative e-petition system to be established at the start of the next Parliament. It considered issues relating to the Chair of the new Committee. The motion before us adds the post of Chair of the Petitions Committee to the list of Select Committees that attract an additional salary. That principle is a matter for the House to decide, but in the light of the expected responsibility and work load of the Committee, I believe that a valid case has been made, and I hope the House will support it.
The final motion, which comes after the issue of the secret ballot, follows up one of the final acts of the Procedure Committee in this Parliament, which was to publish a report recommending a revision of the Standing Orders of this House. I shall respond immediately to one of the recommendations and bring forward a motion that facilitates the nomination by you, Mr Speaker, of three Members of the House to serve as Deputy Speakers at the start of the next Parliament and in advance of elections to those posts under Standing Order No. 2A. I hope that the next Parliament will get an early opportunity to consider the report of the Procedure Committee on Standing Order revisions in full, and that the motion to nominate Deputy Speakers at the start of a Parliament, as I have described, will be incorporated in the Standing Orders of this House on a permanent basis.
That is an important consideration and it brings me to the fourth motion, on whether there should be a secret ballot or an open Division in a contested re-election of a former Speaker. In its latest report the Procedure Committee reminds us that the issue has not yet been addressed, and I believe—we discussed this during the urgent question—that it is in the interests of the House for the matter to be resolved before the start of a new Parliament. The Committee recommended in 2011 that the House be given the opportunity to determine whether, on the first day of a new Parliament if the decision on a former Speaker is challenged, the question should be decided by secret ballot or open Division. There are arguments both ways.
I very much support the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) who said that these matters ought to be determined when the current incumbent of the post of Speaker stands down. Otherwise, it looks precisely like what I fear it is: partisan behaviour on the part of the governing party.
If the Committee made this recommendation years ago, as has been said, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if proper time been allocated for it and people had had notice of the fact that it was to be discussed, he would not be facing the criticism he faces today, which is that this is very much a stitch-up by the Government?
I think my right hon. Friend has inadvertently misled the House. The recommendation from the Procedure Committee in 2011 that we should visit this issue and vote on whether the election of the Speaker should be by secret ballot was a reiteration of an argument that that Committee first put forward in 2009, as it felt that the decision should have been made before the 2010 election.
That is an important point. There was a clear view from the Procedure Committee in 2009, but it was not acted on at the end of the last Parliament. It is possible to go on for ever not acting on those recommendations and arguments in one Parliament after another.
Will the Leader of the House confirm what would happen at the beginning of the next Parliament? As I understand it, the Father of the House—whoever that is—will take the Chair and will decide on the collection of voices whether there is a contest or not. It will be up to the Father of the House to decide whether there are enough voices
That is absolutely true. All that we are discussing is whether that would be followed by an open Division or a secret ballot. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have already changed the procedure for the election of a new Speaker, so that that is by secret ballot. Indeed, most of the elections to offices in this House have been changed on that basis, and what remains—I will quickly cover the arguments now—is in my view an anomalous situation where an open Division remains in one part of those procedures.
May I suggest that we accept that, with the presence of the Speaker in the Chair now, it is a depersonalised issue and one for the House and the procedure it wants to follow, rather than a yes or no against a particular person?
Before I give way again let me discuss some of the arguments because I want to leave time for the shadow Leader of the House and others.
The arguments in favour of the status quo are that it is a familiar procedure, that it is a quick procedure, and that the Speaker stands for election as the Speaker in his or her constituency in expectation of continuing in office and is therefore in a different situation from other officeholders. But obviously the arguments the other way are very strong. We conduct the great majority of elections in the House, and all elections out in the country, by secret ballot for reasons well understood and instantly appreciated. That has been a general principle of our democracy since the 19th century. Whenever voters elect someone to a position of power and authority over them, the principle is that they should be able to do so without fear or favour. It is how we elect our party leaders, it is how we elect our Select Committee Chairs—[Interruption.] It is certainly how we elect our party’s leader. It also frees MPs from pressure from the Chair or from their parties.
This proposal, like the elections for Committee Chairs, goes against one of the major principles of standards in public life: transparency. Should we not bring Parliament into the 21st century and make all elections for everyone open, so that we and the electors can see exactly what we are doing in here? We have a bad enough reputation now; this motion sullies it further.
I think it would be a minority view on both sides of the House that all elections should be by open Division or open voting. The right hon. Gentleman can make a case for that, but it is a minority case. Indeed, the Liaison Committee has said that the election of Chairs by the whole House gives those chosen a greater degree of authority in their role in the House, their relationship with Ministers and their standing in the wider community. The Standards Committee, which he chairs very capably, said:
“We recommend that the Chair of the Committee be elected by all MPs”—
which means in a secret ballot—
“as we believe this would enhance the confidence of the House in the Committee”,
so his Committee has made the case, as he will have to admit, for election by secret ballot.
I was elected Chair of the Education Committee under the new procedure in this Parliament by secret ballot of the whole House. If it had been up to the party Whips, I doubt I would ever have taken that position. How can a secret ballot be anything other than a protection of the voice of people in this Chamber so that they can speak up? For the Opposition to suggest otherwise can only be for partisan purposes.
Personally, I come down on the same side of the question because I think that a secret ballot frees Members from pressure from their parties or from the Chair. It is the right thing to do in principle. Although the case can be made that those arguments do not apply when it comes to the election of the Speaker, it can also be argued that they apply particularly in that instance so that Members can vote without fear or favour.
Earlier the Leader of the House said that these proposals were coming forward today because we had no Lords amendments to consider and, as a result, there was time. If there had been some Lords amendments, would these proposals not have been brought forward today?
I have already answered that question. It would certainly have been much more difficult and I doubt whether we would have been able to do so, but we have been able to bring them forward, and we do have time.
The House can decide as it wishes, and it should decide on the basis put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), which is not on any individual case but on what it thinks is the best and right procedure. My opinion, as Leader of the House, is that a secret ballot would be right, fair and democratic in such circumstances, and thus completely justified. I hope therefore that the House will approve the motion.
It is with genuine sorrow and anger that I rise to oppose this motion today. I shall address only the real point at issue—the third motion, which seeks to change Standing Order No. 1A on the election of the Speaker. Despite the fact that the Procedure Committee asked for this not to be done in this way and for no changes to be made to this Standing Order, we are—in arguments rehearsed in the urgent question earlier—in this appalling situation with only one hour to discuss an issue that we could have discussed in great detail. It is a matter of great interest to all Members on both sides of the House.
There are arguments on both sides about the options that the Procedure Committee considered—
The Leader of the House has taken nearly a third of the time that he has allocated for the entire debate in his opening speech. Every Member of the House has a direct interest in what he suddenly proposed out of the blue late last night. This is an appalling and shabby way to treat the House.
The motion to make changes to Standing Order No. 1A would effectively create a motion of no confidence in the existing Speaker at the beginning of every Parliament and mandate that it should be held in secret. Let us stop and think about the meaning of that for future Parliaments. Let us try to get away from the partisan nature of what has been presented to us today and think about the principle that we have been given almost no time to think about or debate. Let us think about how it would affect the position of Speaker in the future. It opens up the possibility that any future Government will be able to threaten an existing Speaker in a way that undermines the independence of the House of Commons.
The motion before us was decided in underhand negotiations by the Government parties. It has been presented with no notice, no consultation with the Procedure Committee or the Opposition—a point I made extremely forcefully to the Leader of the House when I found out about it by accident late last night—and it is against the express wishes of the Procedure Committee. I refer the House to the minutes of the Procedure Committee from 6 February 2013 which, on this very issue, state that
“with reference to the recommendation on the re-election of a former Speaker, the Committee agreed that the motion to be put to the House should be ‘That no change be made to Standing Order 1A (Re-election of former Speaker).’”
An e-mail I have from the Clerk of the Procedure Committee to the office of the Leader of the House confirms this. In the list of proposed motions that the Clerk of the Committee sent for debate on House business, on the question of re-election of a former Speaker, it reads:
“That no change be made to Standing Order 1A”.
I also have letters from the Chair of the Procedure Committee to the Leader of the House stating that any debate on these matters should take place in the early part of the week and
“not tucked away on a Thursday afternoon”.
I doubt that even the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) could have anticipated that the Leader of the House would seek to spring this motion on us on the very last day of a five-year, fixed-term Parliament—the Leader of the House cannot argue that he did not know when it was all going to end, because we have known for five years—after all whipped business has been concluded and many MPs will have already returned to their constituencies. This is a matter for all of us. It is not, and should not be, a matter for this kind of ambush.
In our parliamentary system, the Leader of the House has two jobs. The first is to ensure that the Government of the day get their business by being the voice of the Government in this House. The second is to be the voice of this House in the Government, restraining the wilder excesses of a powerful Executive and ensuring that the House can do its job effectively. I am sorry to say that by supporting this grubby little plot against the Speaker on his last day as a parliamentarian, the Leader of the House has failed in his duty.
No. The Leader of the House has taken a long time and we have a very short time to debate these matters.
The Leader of the House must know that it is improper to change the Standing Orders of this House with no notice on the last day of the Parliament. This is no way for the House to be asked to change the way it governs itself, and in such a crucial area.
We all know what is really going on here. In all the morass of procedure, this is really a spiteful attempt to get rid of a Speaker who has the temerity to stand up for this House. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] And it is a cynical attempt to bring the speakership into play and use it as a bargaining chip in coalition negotiations because the Tories have accepted that they cannot win a majority. I urge the House, for the future of our constitution, the way we do things and the freedoms we enjoy in the House, to vote the motion down.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that so many Members wish to speak on this very important constitutional matter, which we have been bounced into at the last minute with the last gasp of this dreadful Government, is there not a way in which more time could be allocated so that everyone can express themselves?
The short answer is no. The motion has been tabled by the Government for the debate to last for up to one hour. Colleagues can make their own assessment of whether they think that is a sufficiency of time for this matter, but I am not in a position to extend the time.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you make sure that the general public out there, who will look on in disbelief, have some understanding of the absolutely ridiculous way in which Parliament has now been forced to act?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Can I just say that my right hon. Friend has just excelled himself in the atmosphere he has generated in this House, in precisely the way in which the Leader of the House has excelled himself in the atmosphere of the country?
I am very happy to respond to the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker). The short answer is that I have not found it necessary to seek advice on this matter. It is commonplace for the Speaker to be in the Speaker’s Chair. I am genuinely sorry if that disquiets the right hon. Gentleman, but it has been my normal practice to do at least the expected number of hours of the Speaker in the Chair, and frequently rather more so. I have not generally found that that has met with disapproval in the House.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate this afternoon, Mr Speaker. I am not ashamed to say that I admire you. I am a friend of yours. I have not yet seen your kitchen, but I hope to one day. You have done an enormous amount for this House and you have done an enormous amount to empower this Chamber. Mr Speaker, we do share a weakness and we both know what that weakness is: we both have a temper, and we need to work together to better manage our tempers in the future. I was quite cross with a couple of very decent Whips yesterday and I apologise to them today, as I did yesterday.
The report should not be about you, Mr Speaker, and it is becoming about you. I fear that the Government have wanted it to become about you. It should be about the position of Speaker. On 6 February 2013, my Committee decided to bring forward this report. We were going to recommend a motion that the status quo be retained. This was an amendable motion, so those colleagues who disagreed could have amended the motion and a vote could have taken place. On 7 February, I wrote a letter to the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), notifying him of this matter and asking that our debates be taken in prime time, so the whole House could come to an informed decision.
At about that time, circumstances meant that the Government felt unable to bring forward the report. We agreed with the Government’s view on the matter. On 28 January 2015, we met the Leader of the House and had further discussions about various reports, including on the election of the Speaker. I sent a letter on 3 February confirming the Committee’s firm and unanimous view—the Committee is made up of all sorts of people from all sorts of parties—that any vote should take place in prime time so that the House could come to an informed decision.
I do say to the Government that this is not, I think, how they expected today to play out. The Government were hoping that the party would be kept here under a three-line Whip for a party meeting and that others would have gone home. This does not reflect well on the Government.
May I just say that how one treats people in this place is important? This week, I went to the leaving drinks for the Leader of the House. I spent 20 minutes saying goodbye to his special adviser yesterday. I went into his private office and was passed by the Deputy Leader of the House yesterday. All of them would have been aware of what they were proposing to do. I also had a number of friendly chats with our Chief Whip yesterday, yet I found out at 6.30 pm last night that the Leader of the House was bringing forward my report.
I have been played as a fool. When I go home tonight, I will look in the mirror and see an honourable fool looking back at me. I would much rather be an honourable fool, in this and any other matter, than a clever man. [Applause.]
We talk a lot these days, in this House and elsewhere, about transparency. There is a more old-fashioned meaning of the word transparency, which was often used when I was growing up. It was that one could see the ulterior motives of the people who put things forward. In this occasion we can see some of the old-fashioned meaning of transparency on the Floor of the House today: a device so thin to have found an hour or so from amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill that did not come; a little bit of loose change behind the sofa. I agree with everything that has been said. My admiration for the Leader of the House is not dimmed in any way, but the way he has behaved, or allowed himself to be presented as he has today, is shameful. Fortunately, he is not writing another book on Churchill—that has been left to somebody else—but as a historian he should remember what was said in the 1940 Chamberlain debate when Winston Churchill stood up to defend his colleagues’ failures. The right hon. Gentleman should not allow himself to become an air-raid shelter for them. I am tempted here to quote Mark Antony:
“For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men”.
Let us ask ourselves just of what is the present Speaker supposed to be guilty? Is it that he has firmly enforced the reforms in the House giving all Members a fair deal? Is it that he has been strong with MPs on both sides, in Prime Minister’s Question Time and elsewhere, who yah-boo their way through events in a way many of our voters feel sick about? Is it that he has let daylight into the House by encouraging many people from outside—charity and educational groups and others—to have access to and use of the facilities in an unprecedented fashion? If there are those in the House who are not happy with the Speaker, they can stand in the next Parliament and say their piece. They can stand up themselves. They can put up or shut up.
What we have today is a grubby piece of schoolboy intriguing that Michael Dobbs would have been ashamed to have dreamt up for one of his novels. These are matters for the House to deliberate on properly and initiate, not the Executive. These are matters of due process and due thought. After the expenses scandal in 2008, we spent two traumatic years trying painstakingly to recover the House’s powers and reputation, including through the Backbench Business Committee and the Select Committee elections, and the present Speaker has faithfully defended that process. It will not do the Government any good having their voters turned off by the pocket Machiavellis behind today’s spectacle.
While we speak, Richard III is being interred in Leicester cathedral. He was the monarch who brought a new meaning to decisiveness by arresting one of his councillors, Hastings, at a Privy Council meeting, accusing him of treason without due process and having his head chopped off on Tower hill to secure his usurpation—all within the hour. I wonder that some of those behind the motion are not mourners at the service, since they seem initiators of the methods. This is the mother of Parliaments. Commonwealth countries and Parliaments all over the world come to see it and take example from it, and if we cede our right to decide thoughtfully and after due process to any Government, in this hole-in-the-wall vote, before Parliament prorogues, we will surrender the House’s self-respect and the respect of the voters. We will turn this House into a receptacle for Executive despotism and cronyism.
Those who are tempted to look over their shoulders for advancement at those pulling the strings on this grubby occasion should remember that there will come a day when each of them needs an independent Speaker to protect their rights and interests. Even if it were just on the basis of self-interest, do Members supporting the motion want to face their voters in six weeks’ time as accomplices to this chicanery—to a process that demeans this House and gives credence to what is peddled by cynics and stand-up comics about this House? Are we to dispense, after an hour, with a process that has stood the test of time in the House for six centuries? Previous Speakers have occasionally been beheaded, murdered or killed in battle, but as far as I am aware, none has ever been stabbed in the back on the Floor of the House. Do Members want to align themselves with proceedings more fit for a Soviet-era puppet Parliament rubber-stamping edicts from dictators?
Speaker Lenthall, when he faced up to Charles I, after he burst in to arrest the five Members, said:
“I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me”.
If Members cravenly cave in to this trumped-up device to attack an incumbent Speaker whose high crime has been to protect Members’ interests and to throw some daylight into a Parliament to redeem its reputation among a disillusioned public, they will not only dishonour the great struggle for independence from the Executive, over which a civil war was fought, but jeopardise the relevance of this great place to the people of this country, who will rightly say, six weeks from a general election, “All the problems and serious issues we face, and what on earth are these people playing at?”
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), who delivered an extraordinarily moving and powerful speech, and I would like to put on the record my unbounded admiration for my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), who knows the high regard in which I hold him on a range of important issues. I am disappointed, however, that his last act appears, on the surface at the very least, to be underhand. I have to ask myself, “What is the point of having a Procedure Committee, when it is completely ignored on an issue of procedure?”
For my part, I am conflicted. I can see very strong arguments in favour of the motion, but I want to hear those arguments, and I want to hear them from members of the Committee, who have looked into this issue at great length. With just a few hours’ notice and just one hour of cramped debate, that simply will not be possible. So we have what looks like an ambush and the sense that we are not resolving a procedural issue of Parliament, but punishing the incumbent.
For the record, I fully understand the Government’s impulse. As a Back Bencher trying to hold the Government to account over the past four and a half years, the incumbent has made my job much easier. He is a reformer and a champion of Parliament. If a new Government form after 7 May, I suspect they will find the Speaker just as awkward as this Government have done, and that is as it should be. So Mr Speaker, in opposing the motion, I am opposing not the motion but the manner in which it has been brought to the House. I hope it will be returned after the election.
By definition, the Government of the day have a majority in the House and can remove a Speaker any day of the week. It is a tribute to our constitutional settlement that no Government have chosen even to attempt to do that since 1835. That is why the motion is so wrong. The Speaker used to be the appointee of the Crown, but today the Speaker is a servant of the House, not the poodle of the majority party. [Interruption.]
If the Speaker should have any bias at all, as has been the established practice for more than 150 years, it should be a bias in favour of allowing more debate and continuing discussion and enabling scrutiny. If, therefore, there is a bias at all, it must always be in favour of the Back Bencher, not the Government. For that reason, the Government are always tempted to get rid of a Speaker, but they have never chosen to do so until today. A Speaker should always be able to order proceedings without any fear or favour, in particular without any fear of the Government, the Executive or the Crown.
Given that we have a constitutional convention that the Speaker is not opposed by the main parties and that the current Speaker will be standing on that basis, should the Conservative leadership want to get rid of him, should they not be putting up a candidate against him and allowing members of the public, in a secret ballot, to decide who they want to vote for?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Speaker does not stand on a party ticket, so if the good burghers of Buckingham decide that you, Mr Speaker, should be returned as Speaker, and then this House, because of a Conservative plot, decides to get rid of you, what is to become of you? Are you to return to the Back Benches? No Speaker has done that for more than 150 years. Every other candidate presented for Speaker will have stood on a party ticket. It would therefore be a profoundly irresponsible act for us suddenly to change the rules so that we end up with a party candidate rather than a non-party candidate as our next Speaker.
On the contrary, I have not made a single personal remark about the Speaker during my entire time in Parliament. The hon. Gentleman has wandered rather far from the motion. Will he address himself to it and tell us whether he is in favour of a secret ballot or against it? This is similar to when Labour consistently opposed secret ballots in the reform of the trade unions. It is their dirty little prejudice against real democracy.
If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, let me say this. If he has not worked out my views on this by now, he must be a little dim. My biggest fear is that the Conservatives are planning to hand out the speakership to somebody else as part of the coalition negotiations, because they know they will not get a majority in the next Parliament.
I am not giving way any more, as I ought to draw my remarks to a conclusion.
I say to Conservative Members that when our procedure was crafted in 2001, we took the view that the re-election of a Speaker at the beginning of a new Parliament was, in effect, a vote of confidence in the Speaker. The Leader of the House suggested that anybody elected to a position of power over the people should be elected by secret ballot. The Prime Minister will also depend on a vote of confidence or a vote of no confidence. If the Leader of the House is to continue with this, his argument must be that a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister should be a secret ballot. Of course it should not. If Conservative Members genuinely believe that hon. Members will be so frightened that they will not be able to own up to the public how they voted on such a motion of confidence or no confidence in the Speaker, frankly, they have no confidence in one another.
The proceedings of this House were secret for centuries. John Wilkes campaigned to be allowed to reveal to the public what went on in this place. What did the majority Government do at the time? They used their majority to chuck him out of Parliament, and what did the voters do? They put him back in. What did the Government then do? They chucked him out. What did the voters do? They chucked him back in. They believed that this House’s proceedings should be in public and should be known to all so that voters could make their decisions.
The Leader of the House has done himself no favours; he has betrayed the confidence of the House today. He tabled his motion at some time about 7.30 last night. He did not notify the Opposition, but let us get over that. He is arguing that we should have a secret ballot for the election of the Chair of the Procedure Committee, yet he has deliberately gone behind the back of the very person who was elected by the whole House in a secret ballot. His argument bears no weight. Moreover, he constructed today’s one-hour debate in such a way as to make it impossible to table an amendment for consideration. It is completely impossible for us to consider a single amendment today. That is not the action of a Leader of the House who respects Parliament. That is why I say to him: in the name of God, go—and I think the people of this country will say the same.
Further to the point of order, Mr Speaker. There is, of course, another way. The Leader of the House could withdraw the motion—[Hon. Members: “Withdraw, withdraw.”] I have to say that although I would always support a secret ballot, I very much dislike the way in which this matter has been brought before the House today.
The Leader of the House can respond to the point of order if he so wishes, but he does not wish to do so. [Interruption.] Order. Reference was made to tabling at 7.30 pm. In the interests of proper transparency, it is only fair to say—I want accurate information to be before the House—that the Leader of the House notified me of his intentions on this matter at 5.30 pm.
I am going to break the habit of a lifetime and say nothing myself, quoting instead a Liberal Democrat colleague with approval. Following some discussion of this matter on a programme this morning, I received the following message from the hon. Member—and he is honourable—for St Ives (Andrew George). He said:
“I feel very frustrated and annoyed by this. In addition, I cannot be there. My father died last night and, as you might expect, I have other priorities today which I cannot alter. Had I been able to attend, I would object in the strongest terms to THE WAY THIS IS BEING DONE—
the emphasis is his. He continued:
“I don’t mind a motion being brought forward in an open and honest manner, but not in this underhand way. If it helps, I’d be happy for you to make reference to any of this message in your remarks.”
I need add nothing further other than to endorse those sentiments.
I believe that the Leader of the House has a choice in front him: withdrawal of this motion or humiliation in the Division Lobbies. It is clear from all those hon. Members who have spoken from all corners of the House that what is happening is entirely unacceptable to us.
When hon. Members left in 2010, we did so at the worst time for Parliament. We were being pilloried in the press—sometimes fairly, sometimes grossly unfairly, and I wrote a book about an hon. Member who I believe died prematurely because he was unfairly accused in the expenses scandal. This was the then hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire, David Taylor. Much of what happened then—the great screaming nightmare of the expenses scandal—was unjustified, but sadly a lot of it was justified and our reputation was in the gutter. Our main task in this Parliament was to restore confidence in this House and in democracy. The person who has done most to achieve that is Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker has stood up to the Government in a better way than any of the previous Speakers over the last 30 years. To the best of my knowledge, all were bullied at some time by the Government. Mr Speaker never has been. He has liberated Back Benchers and given us the time to name our debates at peak time when maximum attendance by Members is evident and the attention of the country is focused on us. He is the great success of this Parliament.
If we are looking to reform our Parliament—we remain greatly unreformed—there are at least a dozen other issues to take into account. If some Members have this latter-day devotion to democracy, why can we not do something about the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments when Members retire? This is a shameful institution—not the rottweiler it should be in controlling Members and stopping them using their insider knowledge to sell to the highest bidder. It should be stopping the corruption of Members in office, Ministers, civil servants, generals and so forth; it should prevent them from being tempted in their deliberations as they look for retirement jobs. We have done nothing about the scandal of the buying of peerages, and nothing about the buying of access to Ministers. All those scandals should have been addressed, but we have addressed none of them.
I believe that the Government will stand demeaned and shamed by this final act. They will be exposed as the nasty party, devoted not to the honour of the House—which has served us well down the centuries—but to spite and malice.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Leader of the House has listened to the views of the House, and I believe that he has a pretty good understanding of the feelings of the House. Would it not be appropriate for him to stand up now and withdraw the motion? [Hon. Members: “Withdraw!”]
I am very grateful to you for calling me, Mr Speaker, not just as a Liberal Democrat but as a Member who had the privilege of joining the House in the most recent intake, in 2010. Since then I have sought to learn a great deal from my colleagues, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who has been an inspiration to me in respect of the way I have performed my role.
However, the lesson that I want to share with colleagues today is one that I learned from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who told the House on another occasion that it owed a great deal to the authority of the Speaker. “The House” means each and every one of us—the legislature that stands up to the Executive—and none more than those of us who may expect to find ourselves from time to time, or even frequently, in a minority, and thus unable to rely on the force of numbers in a majority of Members to get our way. That is a lesson to which I urge my colleagues to pay particular attention.
I am not against secret ballots when choosing someone in an election. Indeed, we have used them many times over the last five years, during the current Parliament. However, the motion refers not to circumstances in which a Speaker has retired, resigned or even died in office, and in which we might choose between candidates—I believe that, in those circumstances, there should be a secret ballot—but to the imposition of a secret ballot when the question under consideration is
“that a former Speaker take the Chair”.
I think that the shadow Leader of the House was right to describe that as a motion of no confidence in the Speaker at the start of a Parliament.
An unforeseen—I think, and hope—potential consequence of the motion would be the fatal wounding of a Speaker, even if that Speaker were to win such a vote of confidence and continue in the Chair. That, I believe, is the gravest danger to Members of this House: to have a weakened Speaker, whoever that might be, at some time in the future. There may come a time, Mr Speaker, when you, or indeed your successors, will need to call it a day. If the House were to decide as much, and if there were to be a kill, let it be a clean kill. We would all regret a fatal wounding of the Speaker that left ordinary Back Benchers vulnerable to the power of the Executive.
As Members well know, Mr Speaker, you have not always had your way during this Parliament, particularly in relation to the question of the future of the Clerk of the House; but when you did not have your way—when you did not have the support of the House—you were very gracious in recognising that, and accepting the will of the House. I urge the Leader of the House today to show an equally gracious attitude to the will of the House, and to withdraw the motion.
I am surprised that we are having this debate at this time, and I think that it does us no good.
The Chair of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), spoke with great eloquence about the fact that the Committee had not been treated seriously in relation to this matter. The Leader of the House himself said that the motion could have been presented to the House in 2011, four years ago. In 2013, an exchange of information between the Procedure Committee and the then Leader of the House established that if it were to be presented, it should be presented on a Monday, a Tuesday or a Wednesday. In 2015, the Leader of the House approached us and we had a convivial discussion about what should happen. We went away from that meeting with the understanding that the Leader of the House was working with the Chair of the Procedure Committee to ensure that no such motion would be moved other than at an appropriate time. I would say, Mr Speaker, that the last gasp of this Parliament is not an appropriate time to make a decision of this sort, and I hope that Members of Parliament recognise that.
I am not opposed in principle to the idea of a secret ballot, and I very much regret, Mr Speaker, that this debate has become centred on you personally. I have to say that I did not vote for you, and you and I have crossed swords many times over a wide range of issues, but I want to put on record that you have shown me, and many of my colleagues in all parts of the House, a most courteous approach and a most courteous attitude, and I appreciate that very much—although you are not, of course, without your faults. [Laughter.]
I must say to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—whom I revere as well—that I feel very uncomfortable about the procedure that the Government have adopted, which has allowed only an hour for debate. I think that that is unfortunate, given that we are debating a House of Commons matter. However, I cannot vote with the Opposition, because, unlike my right hon. and hon. Friends, they have displayed a monolithic, partisan approach to this issue, which has demeaned them and, I am afraid, has done no credit to the House either.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I express my sadness and regret that you have not seen fit to call any other Members to speak in support of the motion? [Interruption.]
If the hon. Gentleman’s complaint is that there is inadequate time for right hon. and hon. Members to be called in this debate, let me say, with a clarity that is beyond peradventure, that I would be happy to sit here all day and all night for right hon. and hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman is a constitutionalist, and I think that he prides himself on understanding Parliament. The motion was tabled by the Government, and the time for it was determined by the Government. I think that that is clear.
The answer to that, I fear—as far as the hon. Gentleman is concerned—is that the Government tabled the motion earlier in the week, which removed any possibility of Standing Order 24 debates today. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point of order is that there cannot be such a debate, but that is the reason. It has nothing to do with a decision by the Chair; it has to do with a judgment that the Government have made.
I must now put the Question.
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the first motion, the Speaker put the Question (Order, this day).
Question agreed to.
That this House takes note of paragraphs 21 to 28 of the Seventh Report of the Procedure Committee, Matters for the Procedure Committee in the 2015 Parliament, HC 1121, concerning the trial of a three day deadline for the tabling of amendments and new clauses/schedules at report stage of all programmed bills; and approves the Committee’s recommendation in paragraph 28 that the trial should be extended for the duration of the first session of the 2015 Parliament, and extended to amendments and new clauses/schedules in Committee of the whole House of all Bills and at report stage of un-programmed Bills.