Friday, November 12, 2010

The Speaker

[An interesting article from UK Parliament Website]

The Speaker of the House of Commons chairs debates in the Commons chamber. The holder of this office is an MP who has been elected to be Speaker by other Members of Parliament. During debates they keep order and call MPs to speak.

The Speaker is the chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons and must remain politically impartial at all times. The Speaker also represents the Commons to the monarch, the Lords and other authorities and chairs the House of Commons Commission. The current Speaker is John Bercow, MP for Buckingham.

Chairing debates in the House of Commons

The Speaker is perhaps best known as the person who keeps order and calls MPs to speak during Commons debates.

The Speaker calls MPs in turn to give their opinion on an issue. MPs signal that they want to speak by standing up from their seat (a custom known as 'catching the Speaker's eye') or they can notify the Speaker in advance by writing.

The Speaker has full authority to make sure MPs follow the rules of the House during debates. This can include:
  1. directing an MP to withdraw remarks if, for example, they use abusive language
  2. suspending the sitting of the House due to serious disorder
  3. suspending MPs who are deliberately disobedient - known as naming
  4. asking MPs to be quiet so Members can be heard
Election of the Speaker

John Bercow was elected House of Commons Speaker on 22 June 2009.

The Speaker was elected using an exhaustive secret ballot system, the first time this procedure had been used for the election of a Speaker.

The process is as follows:
  1. MPs are given a list of candidates and place an x next to the candidate of their choice
  2. if a candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the votes, the question is put to the House that he or she takes the chair as Speaker
  3. if no candidate does so, the candidate with the fewest votes, and those with less than five per cent of the vote, are eliminated
  4. in addition, any candidate may withdraw within 10 minutes of the announcement of the result of a ballot
  5. MPs then vote again on the reduced slate of candidates and continue doing so until one candidate receives more than half the votes
Speaker's election FAQs

Politically impartial

Speakers must be politically impartial. Therefore, on election the new Speaker must resign from their political party and remain separate from political issues even in retirement. However, the Speaker will deal with their constituents' problems like a normal MP.

Speakers and general elections

Speakers still stand in general elections. They are generally unopposed by the major political parties, who will not field a candidate in the Speaker's constituency - this includes the original party they were a member of. During a general election, Speakers do not campaign on any political issues but simply stand as 'the Speaker seeking re-election'.

Frequently Asked Questions: Speaker's Election

When was the current Speaker elected?
The election of Speaker Bercow took place on 22 June 2009.

What happened on that day?
  1. Nominations were formally tabled between 9:30 and 10:30am.
  2. In the absence of a Speaker the Father of the House (Rt Hon Alan Williams MP, Swansea West, elected 1964) took the chair and presided over proceedings of the House.
  3. After the business began at 2:30pm, each candidate had a chance to address the House. The order of candidates speaking was chosen by the Father of the House by drawing lots earlier in the day.
  4. All MPs were then able to vote for their preferred candidate by secret ballot. As no candidate achieved over half the vote there were further rounds of voting.
  5. For following rounds, any candidates who achieved less than 5% of the votes, the candidate with the fewest votes and any candidates who chose to withdraw from the election were removed from the ballot paper. This continued until one candidate achieved over half of the votes cast or only one candidate remained.
  6. A motion was put before the House proposing the successful candidate as Speaker.
  7. When the question was agreed, the Member then took the Chair as Speaker-elect. Traditionally he is pulled ‘reluctantly’ to the chair.
  8. The Speaker-elect goes to the House of Lords to receive the Queen’s approbation from a Royal Commission.
How long does the process take?
The time taken to get a candidate with the support of half of the votes cast in a ballot will depend on how many candidates present themselves for the position. There may be several rounds of voting each of which may take up to two hours. At the election of Speaker Bercow proceedings started at 2.30pm and there were three rounds of voting with the Speaker-elect taking the chair at 8.30pm.

Was this the first time the Speaker has been elected?
No, the election of a Speaker takes place at the beginning of every Parliament and every time a Speaker steps down from the post. The timetable and procedure for the election of a Speaker are set out in Standing Orders 1, 1A and 1B. Standing order 1A has been used before in the re-election of the Speaker in 2001 and 2005, but this is the first time the system of exhaustive secret ballot introduced in 2001 and set out in Standing Order No. 1B will have been used to elect a new Speaker.

What is different from the old system to elect a Speaker?
The old system was based on a motion put to the House. In the motion, one candidate would be proposed as Speaker and the other candidates would be presented as successive amendments to the main motion. One key change in the new system is the introduction of an exhaustive secret ballot system. Each MP will be able to vote for their candidate without anyone else knowing who they voted for. The new system will also allow MPs to vote for any of the candidates on the first ballot.

Why was the system changed?
The old system put an emphasis on the candidate who would be proposed first to the House and this provided the Father of the House with a difficult decision. The system also meant that it was possible for candidates to be presented as later amendments to the first name not to be considered at all by the House, as an earlier candidate might win before they were reached. The new system was adopted by the House following recommendations made by the Procedure Committee in a report published in 2000-01.

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