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Speaker of the British House of Commons

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This article is part of the series
Politics of the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the Speaker of the House of Commons is the presiding officer of the Lower House of Parliament, the House of Commons. The current Speaker is The Right Honourable Michael Martin MP, who took office in 2000 and was re-elected on 11 May 2005 following the 2005 general election.

The office of Speaker dates to the fourteenth century. The Speaker presides over the House's debates, determining which members may speak. The Speaker is also responsible for maintaining order during debate, and may punish members who break the rules of the House. Conventionally, the Speaker remains non-partisan, and renounces all affiliation with his or her former political party when taking office. The Speaker does not take part in debate nor vote (except to break ties). Aside from duties relating to presiding over the House, the Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and remains a constituency MP.

The Lord Chancellor presides in the Upper House of Parliament, the House of Lords, but this function will be devolved to a separate person under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Speaker of the House of Lords.

Contents

History

The office of Speaker is an ancient one, and is almost as old as Parliament itself. The earliest year for which a presiding officer has been identified is 1258, when Peter de Montfort presided over a Parliament held in Oxford. Early presiding officers were known by the title parlour or prolocutor. The first "Speaker" of the House of Commons was Sir Thomas Hungerford, who took office in 1376.

Until the seventeenth century, members of the House of Commons often viewed their Speaker as an agent of the Crown. As Parliament evolved, however, the Speaker's position grew into one that involved more duties to the House than to the Crown; such was definitely the case by the time of the English Civil War. This change is sometimes said to be reflected by an incident in 1642, when King Charles I entered the House in order to search for and arrest five members for high treason. When the King asked him if he knew of the location of these members, the Speaker, William Lenthall, famously replied: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."

The development of Cabinet government under King William III in the late seventeenth century caused further change in the nature of the Speakership. Speakers were generally associated with the ministry, and often held other government offices. For example, Robert Harley served simultaneously as Speaker and as a Secretary of State between 1704 and 1705. The Speaker between 1728 and 1761, Arthur Onslow, reduced ties with the government, though the office did remain to a large degree political. The Speakership evolved into its modern form—in which the holder is an impartial and apolitical officer who does not belong to any party—only during the middle of the nineteenth century.

When referring to current and former speakers, the proper terminology is to prefix their surname with 'speaker', thus "Speaker Hungerford", "Speaker Lenthall".

Over 150 individuals have served as Speaker of the House of Commons. Betty Boothroyd, who was elected in 1992 and served until 2000, was the first woman to fill the position. Her successor and the present incumbent, Michael Martin, is the first Roman Catholic to serve as Speaker since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.

Election

Members of Parliament (MPs) elect the Speaker from amongst their own ranks. The House must elect a Speaker at the beginning of each new parliamentary term after a General Election, or after the death or resignation the incumbent. Once elected, a Speaker continues in office until the dissolution of Parliament. Customarily, the House re-elects Speakers who desire to continue in office for more than one term. Theoretically, the House could vote against re-electing a Speaker, but such an event would be extremely unlikely.

The procedure for electing a Speaker has changed in recent years. Until 1971, the Clerk of the House of Commons became temporary Chairman of the House. As the Clerk is never a Member, he would silently stand and point at the Member who was to speak. However, this procedure broke down at the election of a new Speaker in 1971 (see below) and had to be changed. Since that time, as recommended by a Select Committee, the Father of the House (the member of the House with the longest period of unbroken service, but never a Minister of the Crown) becomes the presiding officer.

Until 2001, the election of a Speaker was conducted as a routine matter of House of Commons business. A member would move "That Mr [X] do take the Chair of this House as Speaker", and following debate (which may have included an amendment to replace the name of the member on whom the Speakership was to be conferred), a routine Division of the House would resolve in favour of one candidate. There was, however, a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes lobbying before suitable candidates were agreed upon, and so it was very rare for a new Speaker to be opposed. However, this system broke down in 2000 when fourteen rival candidates declared for the job and the debate occupied an entire Parliamentary day. The House of Commons Procedure Committee then re-examined the means of electing a Speaker and recommended a new system.

Since 2001, candidates must be nominated by at least twelve members, of whom at least three must be of a different party than the candidate. Each member may nominate no more than one candidate. The House then votes by secret ballot; an absolute majority is required for victory. If no candidate wins a majority, then the individual with the fewest votes is eliminated, as are any candidates who receive less than five percent of the votes cast. The House continues to vote, for several rounds if necessary, until one member receives the requisite majority. Then, the House votes on a formal motion to appoint the member in question to the Speakership. (In the unlikely event that this motion fails, the House must hold a fresh series of ballots on all of the nominees.)

If only one candidate is nominated, then no ballot is held, and the House proceeds directly to the motion to appoint the candidate to the Speakership. A similar procedure is used if a Speaker seeks a further term after a General Election: no ballot is held, and the House immediately votes on a motion to re-elect the Speaker. If the motion to re-elect the Speaker fails, candidates are nominated, and the House proceeds with voting (as described above).

Upon the passage of the motion, the Speaker-elect is expected to show reluctance at being chosen; he or she is customarily "dragged" by colleagues to the Chair. This custom is a relic of the era when the Speaker, as representative of the Commons, could have been required to bear bad news to the Sovereign.

The Speaker-elect must receive the Sovereign's approval, or the "approbation," before he or she may take office. On the day of the election, the Speaker-elect leads the Commons to the Chamber of the House of Lords, where Lords Commissioners appointed by the Crown confirm him or her in the monarch's name. Thereafter, the Speaker symbolically requests "in the name and on behalf of the Commons of the United Kingdom, to lay claim, by humble petition to Her Majesty, to all their ancient and undoubted rights and privileges, especially to freedom of speech in debate, to freedom from arrest, and to free access to Her Majesty whenever occasion shall require." After the Lords Commissioners, on the behalf of the Sovereign, confirm the Commons' rights and privileges, the Commons return to their Chamber. If a Speaker is chosen in the middle of a Parliament due to a vacancy in the office, he or she must receive the royal approbation as described above, but does not again lay claim to the Commons' rights and privileges.

New Speakers are normally senior Members of Parliament from the government party. After election, however, the Speaker ceases to be associated with his or her former party. Moreover, he or she continues to serve even if his or her former party loses power and becomes the Opposition. Michael Martin was the second consecutive ex-Labour Speaker, breaking a pattern of alternation between Labour and Conservative since the Second World War, which some claim had been established as a constitutional convention.

Controversial elections

Though the election of a Speaker is normally non-partisan, there have been several controversial elections in history. For example, in 1895, the sudden retirement of Arthur Peel came at a time when partisan feelings were running high. The Conservatives and Liberal Unionists put forward Sir Matthew White Ridley, a well-respected MP who had many years of experience, and hoped for a unanimous election as the previous Speaker had been a Liberal. However, the Liberals decided to oppose him and nominated William Court Gully who had been an MP for only nine years and had been a relatively quiet presence. On a party-line vote Gully was chosen by 285 to 274. Although Gully proved his impartiality to the satisfaction of most of his opponents, and was unanimously re-elected after the 1895 general election, the episode left many Unionists bitter.

The 1951 election was similarly controversial. After the incumbent Speaker, Douglas Clifton-Brown, retired at the 1951 general election, there was a great demand from the Labour Party for Major James Milner to become the first Labour Speaker after he had served as Deputy Speaker for eight years. However, the Conservatives (who had just regained power) nominated William Shepherd Morrison against him. The vote again went down party lines, and Morrison was elected. Milner received a Peerage as a compensation.

In 1971, having had early warning that Horace King would be retiring, the Conservatives took the lead in offering to the Labour Party either Selwyn Lloyd or John Boyd-Carpenter as potential Speakers. The Labour Party chose Selwyn Lloyd partly because he was perceived as a weak figure. However, when the House of Commons debated the new Speaker, Conservative MP Robin Maxwell-Hyslop and Labour MP Willie Hamilton nominated Geoffrey de Freitas, a senior and respected backbench Labour MP. De Freitas was taken aback by the sudden nomination and urged the House not to support him (a genuine feeling, unlike the feigned reluctance which all Speakers traditionally show). Lloyd was elected but there was a feeling among all parties that the system of election needed to be overhauled. Now, a candidate's consent is required before he or she can be nominated.

The last two instances of the election of a new Speaker (1992 and 2000) have all been relatively controversial. Bernard Weatherill had announced his impending retirement a long time before the 1992 general election, leading to a long but suppressed campaign for support. Betty Boothroyd, a Labour MP who had been Deputy Speaker, was known to be extremely interested in becoming the first woman Speaker; the Conservative former Cabinet member Peter Brooke was put forward at a later stage as a candidate. Unlike previous elections, there was an active campaign among Conservative MPs to support Boothroyd and about seventy Members of Parliament did so, ensuring her election.

Betty Boothroyd announced her retirement shortly before the summer recess in 2000, which left a long time for would-be Speakers to declare their candidature but little opportunity for Members of Parliament to negotiate and decide on who should be chosen. Many backbench Labour MPs, especially from Scotland, advanced the claims of Michael Martin as a long-serving Deputy Speaker. Most Conservatives felt strongly that the recent alternation between the main parties ought to be maintained and a Conservative Speaker chosen. The most prominent Conservatives offering themselves were Sir George Young and Deputy Speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst. With several maverick candidates announcing themselves, the total number of Members seeking the Speakership was fourteen, none of whom would withdraw. A lengthy sitting of the House saw Michael Martin first proposed, then each of the candidates proposed as an amendment which was voted down. In Points of Order before the debate, many members demanded a secret ballot.

Non-partisanship

Upon election, the Speaker, by convention, breaks all ties with his or her political party, as it is considered essential that the Speaker be seen as a completely impartial presiding officer. In many cases, individuals have served in ministerial or other political positions before being elected Speaker. For example, Selwyn Lloyd and George Thomas (Speakers during the 1970s and early 1980s) had both previously served as high-ranking Cabinet members, whilst Bernard Weatherill (Speaker from 1983 to 1992) was previously a party whip.

In General Elections, it is customary for the Speaker to stand without party affiliation. Since parties began being listed on ballot papers, the Speaker's affiliation is shown as "Speaker seeking re-election." In the past few decades, the Conservatives have not stood against Speakers seeking re-election, regardless of their previous political affiliation. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have stood against ex-Conservative Speakers, but not against ex-Labour ones. Most recently, in 2001 and 2005, the only major party to oppose the ex-Labour Speaker Michael Martin was the Scottish National Party. In the House, the Speaker does not vote on any motion, except in order to resolve ties. After leaving office, the Speaker normally takes no part in political life; if elevated to the House of Lords, he or she would normally sit as a Cross-bencher.

It has often been suggested that the Speaker's constituents may feel disenfranchised, for their parliamentary representative takes no part in partisan politics and does not vote in the House although still empowered to intercede on behalf of their constituents as are other MPs. Thus, proposals have been made to create a separate constituency for the Speaker, called "St Stephen's" or "Palace of Westminster," making the Speaker a Member representing Parliament itself. Such ideas, however, have yet to bear fruit.

Presiding

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On important ceremonial occasions, the Speaker wears black and gold robes. On less formal occasions, the Speaker wears plain black robes.

The Speaker's primary function is to preside over the House of Commons. Whilst "in the Chair" (that is, presiding), the Speaker wears a uniform consisting of a black court suit and black robe with a train. On important ceremonial occasions, the black robe is replaced with a long black and gold robe with lace frills and lace jabot. Formerly, the Speaker also wore a full-bottomed wig when presiding and on other occasions; in 1992, however, Betty Boothroyd decided to end this practice. Her successor, Michael Martin MP, also eschewed the wig; moreover, he chose to simplify other aspects of the uniform, doing away with the once customary buckled court shoes and silk stockings.

Whilst presiding, the Speaker sits at a chair in the front of the House. Traditionally, members of the Government sit on his right, and those of the Opposition on his left. The Speaker's powers are extensive, and are much more extensive than those of his or her Lords counterpart, the Lord Chancellor. Most importantly, the Speaker calls on members to speak; no member may make a speech without the Speaker's prior permission. By custom, the Speaker alternates between members of the Government and of the Opposition. Members direct their speeches not to the whole House, but to the Speaker, using the words "Mister Speaker" or "Madam Speaker." Members must refer to each other in the third person; they may not directly address anyone other than the Speaker. In order to maintain his impartiality, the Speaker never makes any speeches.

During debate, the Speaker is responsible for maintaining discipline and order. He or she rules on all points of order (objections made by members asserting that a rule of the House has been broken); the decisions may not be appealed. The Speaker bases decisions on the rules of the House and on precedent; if necessary, he or she may consult with the Parliamentary Clerks before issuing a ruling. In addition, the Speaker has other powers that he may use to maintain orderly debate. Usually, the Speaker attempts to end a disruption, or "calls members to order," by repeating "Order! Order!" If members do not follow his or her instructions, the Speaker may punish them by demanding that they leave the House for the remainder of the day's sitting. For grave disobedience, the Speaker may "name" a member, by saying "I name [Mr X]." (deliberately breaching the convention that members are only referred to by reference to their constituency, "The [Right] Honourable Member for [Y]"). The House may then vote to suspend the member "named" by the Speaker. In case of "grave disorder," the Speaker may immediately adjourn the entire sitting.

In addition to maintaining discipline, the Speaker must ensure that debate proceeds smoothly. If the Speaker finds that a member is making irrelevant remarks, is tediously repetitive, or is otherwise attempting to delay proceedings, he or she may order the member to end the speech. The present Speaker, Michael Martin, has been especially active in this regard; in May 2004, for example, he rebuked the Prime Minister (Tony Blair) for answering a question on his policies by attacking those of the Opposition. Furthermore, before debate begins, the Speaker may invoke the "Short Speech" rule, under which he or she may set a time limit of not less than eight minutes per speech. At the same time, however, the Speaker is charged with protecting the interests of the minority by ensuring sufficient debate before a vote. Thus, the Speaker may disallow a closure, which seeks to end debate and immediately put the question to a vote, if he or she finds that the motion constitutes an abuse of the rules or breaches the rights of the minority.

Before the House votes on any issue, the Speaker "puts the question"; that is, he or she verbally states the motion on which the members are to vote. He or she then assesses the result of a voice vote, but any member may demand a division (a recorded vote). The Speaker may overrule a request for a division and maintain the original ruling; this power, however, is used only rarely, usually when members make frivolous requests for divisions in order to delay proceedings.

Voting

The Speaker does not vote in the division, except when the Ayes and Noes are tied, in which case he or she must use the casting vote. In exercising the casting vote, the Speaker may theoretically vote as he or she pleases, but, in practice, always votes in accordance with certain unwritten conventions. Firstly, the Speaker votes so as to give the House further opportunity to debate a bill or motion before reaching a final decision. (For example, the Speaker would be obliged to vote against a closure motion.) Secondly, any final decision should be approved by the majority. (Thus, for instance, the Speaker would vote against the final passage of a bill.) Finally, the Speaker should vote so as to leave a bill or motion in its existing form; in other words, the Speaker would vote against an amendment.

Since the House of Commons is a very large body (with over 600 members), Speakers are rarely called upon to use the casting vote. Since 1801, there have been only forty-nine instances of tied divisions. The last true tied vote was in 1980, when the House divided 201-201 on a motion to grant leave to bring the Televising of Parliament Bill (the Speaker voted Aye). There was believed to be a 317-317 vote on approving the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, but it was quickly discovered that one extra "Aye" vote had been erroneously counted.

Other functions

In addition to his role as presiding officer, the Speaker performs several other functions on the behalf of the House of Commons. He or she represents the body in relations with the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and non-parliamentary bodies. On important occasions of state (such as Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee in 2002), the Speaker presents Addresses to the Crown on behalf of the House.

The Speaker performs various procedural functions. He or she may recall the House from recess during a national emergency, or when otherwise requested by the Government. When vacancies arise, the Speaker authorises the issuance of writs of election. Furthermore, the Speaker is responsible for certifying bills that relate solely to national taxation as "money bills" under the Parliament Acts. The House of Lords has no power to block or substantially delay a money bill; even if the Lords fail to pass the bill, it becomes law within a month of passage by the Commons. The Speaker's decision on the matter is final, and cannot be challenged by the Upper House.

The Speaker is also responsible for overseeing the administration of the House. He or she chairs the House of Commons Commission, a body that appoints staff, determines their salaries, and supervises the general administration of those who serve the House. Furthermore, the Speaker controls the parts of the Palace of Westminster used by the House of Commons. Also, the Speaker is the ex officio Chairman of the four Boundary Commissions (for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), which are charged with redrawing the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies to reflect population changes. However, the Speaker normally does not attend meetings of the Boundary Commissions; instead, the Deputy Chairman of the Commission (usually a judge) normally presides.

Finally, the Speaker continues to represent his or her constituency in Parliament. Like any other Member of Parliament, he or she responds to letters from constituents and attempts to address their concerns.

Precedence and privileges

The Speaker is one of the highest-ranking officials in the United Kingdom. By an Order-in-Council issued in 1919, the Speaker ranks in the order of precedence above all non-royal individuals except the two archbishops of the Church of England, the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor, and the Lord President of the Council.

As of 2005, the Speaker receives a salary of 72,862, in addition to his or her salary as a Member of Parliament. The Speaker's salary is equal to that of a Cabinet Minister. The Speaker is also provided with official apartments in the Palace of Westminster, the home of both Houses of Parliament. Each day, prior to the sitting of the House of Commons, the Speaker and other officials travel in procession from the apartments to the Chamber. The procession includes the Doorkeeper, the Serjeant-at-Arms, the Speaker, a trainbearer, the Chaplain, and the Speaker's Private Secretary. The Serjeant-at-Arms attends the Speaker on other occasions, and in the House; he bears a ceremonial mace that symbolises the royal authority under which the House meets, as well as the authority of the House of Commons itself.

Customarily, Speakers are appointed to the Privy Council upon election. Thus, the present and former Speakers are entitled to the style "The Right Honourable." Upon retirement, Speakers were traditionally elevated to the House of Lords as viscounts. The last Speaker to receive a viscountcy was George Thomas, who became Viscount Tonypandy upon his retirement in 1983. Since that year, it has instead been normal to grant only life baronies to retiring Speakers.

Deputies

The Speaker is assisted by three deputies, all of whom are elected by the House. The most senior deputy is known as the Chairman of Ways and Means; the title derives from the now defunct Ways and Means Committee which formerly considered taxation-related bills. The remaining deputies are known as the First Deputy and Second Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means. Typically, the Speaker only presides for three hours each day; for the remainder of the time, one of the deputies takes the Chair. Moreover, the Speaker never presides over the Committee of the Whole House, which, as its name suggests, consists of all the members, but operates under more flexible debating rules. (This device was used so that members could debate independently of the Speaker, whom they suspected acted as an agent or spy of the monarch. Now, the procedure is used to take advantage of the more flexible rules of debate.)

Deputies have the same powers as the Speaker when presiding. Akin the Speaker, they do not take part in partisan politics, and remain completely impartial in the House. However, they are entitled to take part in constituency politics, and to make their views known on these matters. In General Elections, they stand as party politicans. If a Deputy Speaker is presiding, then he or she holds the casting vote instead of the Speaker.

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