Speaker of the House of Commons (UK)

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The Speaker of the House of Commons is the chair of the United Kingdom's lower house of Parliament, responsible for keeping debates to order and ensuring that proper parliamentary procedure is followed. They also act as spokesperson for the House, typically to convey good wishes or other messages to the monarch, and represent the House to the House of Lords (the upper house), other parliamentary groups and the public. Notable recent Speakers include Michael Martin (2000-2009), who became the first since 1695 to be forced out of office,[1] and his predecessor, Betty Boothroyd (1992-2000), who was the first woman to occupy the role.

The Speaker sits close to and above the despatch boxes - where senior politicians address the house - and from this position can call on Members of Parliament (MPs) to speak or, cease their address. Members try to 'catch the Speaker's eye' by standing or half-standing, and are then invited to speak. In the event of serious rule-breaking, such as using 'unparliamentary language', the Speaker can 'name' the MP, effectively a serious rebuke because by convention MPs are not referred to by their own names, but by constituency (e.g. "the Honourable Member for Scarborough and Whitby"). The Speaker can then call on a vote for suspension of the wayward MP. The Speaker also has the power to suspend proceedings in the event of serious disorder, or when the chamber is disrupted in some other way (such as members of the public unlawfully gaining access to the floor). The 'Speaker's procession' occurs daily when the Speaker, formally attired, walks from their official residence through the Palace of Westminster to the House.

Election of the Speaker

Following a general election, a new Speaker is elected through a vote by all members. A new system of secret ballot was introduced in 2001 following some controversy over Michael Martin's election. Candidates make speeches organised by the 'Father of the House', i.e. the MP with the longest record of continuous parliamentary service. Sometimes an arrangement exists where Speakers are drawn alternately from the governing and opposition parties, or from the government side. Traditionally, the elected Speaker makes a show of physically resisting the office, and is light-heartedly dragged to the Speaker's chair by other MPs. This reflects past times when being Speaker might incur the wrath of the monarch or others (between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, several were killed).[2]

Following this, the 'Speaker-elect' is not formally made Speaker until they receive Royal Approbation in the House of Lords. This is required because the Speaker, as spokesperson for the Commons, has right of access to the Sovereign (i.e. the king or queen), and must lay claim on behalf of the Commons to "all their ancient and undoubted rights and privileges."[3]

Once elected, a new Speaker must sever all ties to their old party, and be impartial at all times. This requirement for the Speaker to divest themselves of party ties dates back to the eighteenth century, before which the Speaker was often an agent of the monarch. Former Speakers are expected to remain outside party political debate, and if they are appointed to the House of Lords, sit as independent cross-benchers.[4]

In a general election, the Speaker stands in their constituency as 'The Speaker' or 'The Speaker seeking re-election', and does not campaign for a party. By tradition, the main national parties do not contest the seat. It is therefore possible, but unlikely, that a Speaker could fail to win re-election as an MP. The re-election of Speaker John Bercow in his Buckingham constituency in the 2010 general election led to some for reform of this system, as some constituents felt that the absence of major parties on the ballot paper amounted to disenfranchisement.[5] An incumbent Speaker is also formally reappointed by the Commons without a full vote - the option to vote on the Speakership does exist but has not been successfully exercised since 1835. In 2010, the new Father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell, led the reappointment of John Bercow despite some opposition to this.[6] Royal Approbation must also be bestowed.

Deputies

The Speaker has three deputies, who are also MPs and generally do not vote; one of them, the 'Chairman of Ways and Means', presides during debates over taxation or the Budget.[7]

Footnotes

  1. BBC News: 'Speaker quits 'for sake of unity''. 19th May 2009.
  2. BBC News: 'How will new Speaker be chosen?'. 19th May 2009.
  3. House of Commons Information Office: 'The Speaker'. .pdf document.
  4. House of Commons Information Office: 'The Speaker'. .pdf document.
  5. BBC News: 'Colourful election fight for the Speaker '. 4th May 2010.
  6. BBC News: 'John Bercow's critics to challenge his role as Speaker'. 18th May 2010.
  7. House of Commons Information Office: 'The Speaker'. .pdf document.