The Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture 2022 will be delivered by Rt Hon Dame Eleanor Laing DBE MP, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and Chairman of Ways and Means on Thursday 27th October. The title of Dame Eleanor’s lecture is: The View from the Chair
“The view from the Chair”
Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture 27 October 2022 6.30 pm
Thank you for inviting me to deliver the annual Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture. It is an honour to be here.
I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Michael but I appreciate that he played a significant role in the evolution of Britain’s constitutional affairs – both as the founder of this influential group and as one of the architects of the select committee system which has been so successful in recent years in holding the Government to account. This evening is a fitting tribute to his valuable contribution to Parliament.
And that is what I want to talk to you about today: Parliament. I am passionate about this place and have worked in and around the House of Commons for some 33 years.
I have been the Member of Parliament for the Epping Forest constituency in Essex since 1997. I have been in the House during the tenure of Speaker Boothroyd, Speaker Martin, Speaker Bercow and, of course, Speaker Hoyle. I have seen first hand the way in which the approach of the Chair can influence the Commons. I have also experienced the different roles that MPs play throughout their time in the House and their different relationships to the Chair. In my time I have been a shadow Minister and a backbencher, a member of the party of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and a member of the party of government.
Since 2013, when I became a Deputy Speaker, I have had a view from the Chair, rather than a view of the Chair. So that is the title of my lecture tonight: “The view from the Chair”. I was elected Chairman of Ways and Means in January 2020. As well as presiding over debates, I am responsible for chairing the Budget debate and Bills in Committee of the whole House. I also oversee Westminster Hall, the Panel of Chairs and Private Business.
In my capacity as Chairman of Ways and Means, I am supported by the two other Deputy Speakers and a brilliant team of Clerks. I would particularly like to thank the Clerk of the Journals, Eve Samson, and my Private Secretary, L-J Tiley, for their invaluable assistance in helping me put together what I am saying to you this evening.
Before becoming Deputy Speaker, many of my roles required reflection on different parts of our multifaceted constitution. I have been a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, the Joint Committee on the House of Lords, the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege and the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. I was Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Shadow Minister for Constitutional Affairs, Shadow Minister for Women and an Opposition Whip. And long ago I was Special Advisor to the Leader of the House of Commons at a time when we were pushing through very significant changes to the workings of the House.
So I suppose I have observed this place from many different angles.
My lecture today is about the Chair’s role in upholding Parliamentary democracy and ensuring that Parliament can hold the Government to account. Chairing debates in the Chamber – and overseeing other areas of parliamentary scrutiny as Chairman of Ways and Means – is a complex business. The hours we spend in the Chair each day are a privilege but also a challenge. You must be constantly alert, listening to the debate, assessing the mood of the room, intervening when needed, and also constantly thinking ahead, deciding who is going to speak, keeping an eye on the time and making sure the correct procedures are followed.
It’s rather like guiding an enormous battleship through stormy waters and into safe haven.
I always try to impress upon new Members of Parliament the simple principle that the House – and what happens in the Chamber – should always come first and foremost. What happens in the Chamber matters. As Chair it is my duty to ensure that every MP has the right to be heard and to hold the Government to account. It’s a fundamental principle of our democracy.
Before I consider the role of the House and the Chair in more detail, I will look at the constitutional context for our work.
The British constitution is, of course, uncodified. Rather than being a single clear legal text, it is a mixture of key documents, understandings, and traditions which have developed over many centuries. Some are old, such as the position of the Monarch as Head of State. Some are very recent. For example, when the last but one Prime Minister altered the Code of Conduct for Ministers, a document which had only been introduced in 1997, some commentators claimed he was making constitutional changes, and probably he was.
The doctrine of the Separation of Powers in the UK constitution is also open to question both as to the extent to which it does exist and the extent to which it should exist.
It is quite clear that the executive, Parliament and the judiciary have different functions. In the British system, however, Parliament and the executive are fused; Ministers are, and as a matter of practical politics must be, Members of one of the two Houses. The relative separation of the judiciary from the other parts of the state is only recent. When I was first elected, the Law Lords sat in the House of Lords and even took part in some debates.
The fact that there isn’t a codified constitutional document has strengths and weaknesses. I wrote an essay about this as a first-year law student in 1977. I think that’s when I got hooked on constitutional affairs. I read it again recently and I still agree with my somewhat idealistic conclusion that the British constitution is all the better for being unwritten.
One strength is that our constitution evolves. I now turn to Anthony Trollope, of whom I am a great devotee and whom I quoted at length in my maiden speech. When Plantagenet Palliser succeeded his uncle to become Duke of Omnium, and thus had to move from the Commons to take his seat in the Lords, he lost his chance of the one job he really wanted – Chancellor of the Exchequer. It didn’t stop him becoming Prime Minister.
Today, it is unthinkable that the Prime Minister could sit anywhere but the Commons, but today succession to a Dukedom would not be a bar to continuing to sit in the Commons. I rather think that Planty Pall would have supported the House of Lords Bill 1998 – just as, in the 1960s, he would have supported decimalisation for which he fictionally paved the way almost a century earlier.
In fundamental ways, however, our constitution stays the same. The power of the House of Commons has long rested on the fact that it alone can authorise expenditure and taxation – a fact which is particularly pleasing for me as the Chairman of Ways and Means. It remains unthinkable that the Chancellor would ever sit in the Lords.
One very reasonable criticism of the unwritten nature of our constitution is that it can be too easily altered, without considering the wider picture or possible long-term effects.
Until the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, the most senior person in the judiciary sat in the Cabinet as Lord Chancellor. He (for they were all men) also led a government department and was speaker of the House of Lords and voted on legislation.
The first attempt to abolish the office had to be hastily abandoned as it was too deep rooted in statute, and indeed, in the constitution. Nonetheless the 2005 Act finalised the separation of the judiciary from the executive and legislature by changing the status of the Lord Chancellor. Amongst other things, it asserted that the postholder would no longer act as head of the judiciary or as speaker of the Lords.
The changes to the status of Lord Chancellor were a worthy attempt to increase judicial independence. They have, however, been regretted by some senior members of the judiciary, and indeed some former Lord Chancellors. There is a case made that the role of the courts and judiciary needs defending and protecting by someone who is part of the executive and legislature, and the internal challenge a Lord Chancellor could offer to both the Executive and the courts was said to have been invaluable. I disagree. I would argue that the steps taken in 2000s towards a further separation of powers has strengthened our constitution.
The fact the UK has a largely uncodified and wholly unentrenched constitution means that, if Parliament agrees, radical changes can be made. It also means that those changes can be reversed speedily if that appears appropriate. There are circumstances in which the constitution changes by evolution – for example, there is no law which says the Prime Minister cannot sit in the Lords. But radical change most usually requires the consent of Parliament.
It is also true that some judgments in court can clarify the constitution in ways which could be seen as constitutional change. That is an inescapable consequence of an independent judiciary. By contrast changes which come from the law have at least the acquiescence of the executive or the legislature, which could, after all, legislate to reverse them. If, on the other hand, the judiciary were seen to be interpreting parliamentary intention in an over-bearing way there would be a constitutional crisis.
So I would argue that Parliament is the key constitutional actor in the British constitution. By that I mean the Crown in Parliament which contains both executive and legislature. It is the only body which can make primary legislation. It is not the only player in constitutional development, but it is the key one.
What role does the House of Commons play in all of this, apart from being part of the Crown in Parliament?
First of all, the House of Commons retains its old constitutional role as the source of supply and forum for “the redress of grievances”. As “the Grand inquest of the nation”, it allows Members to raise individual cases, and to make sure causes they care about are put on the policy agenda.
The two are linked: deal with our concerns, or you won’t get your money. The post of Chairman of Ways and Means is indissolubly linked to taxation – ways and means – and at the heart of this bargain.
The House is also a key part of the legislature, and the increasing importance of statute law means any Government will need to legislate.
The House remains the constitutional institution which upholds the Government – a more recent constitutional convention, but one which is linked to the House’s ancient control of the purse strings. The choice of who sat in the Ministry in the nineteenth century, in both fact and fiction depended on shifting coalitions of politicians and indeed it still does. While the electoral principle is more important now, ability to command the support of one’s colleagues remains vital. Indeed, the fact that winning elections does not guarantee continued office if you cannot control the House of Commons, which lies behind so many of Trollope’s 19th century plots, has become all too obvious in recent months.
It’s a perennial truism that truth is stranger than fiction. If Anthony Trollope, or indeed Jeffrey Archer or Michael Dobbs, had produced a dramatic plot in which the United Kingdom had three Prime Ministers and two Monarchs in the space of seven weeks, it might have been criticised as being too far-fetched. In practice, however, we have just seen our constitution triumph. It has accommodated the principle that a Government which loses the confidence of the House does not survive. A Leader of a Government who loses the confidence of the House does not survive, although the function of governing itself continues seamlessly.
A still more modern constitutional development is ministerial accountability. The most vital role of the House is enabling its elected Members to hold Ministers to account. If you say that an executive survives because of what it says to the House, the same can be said of a Minister. Everything is scrutinised. Everything is recorded.
And it acts as a forum in which the still more recent constitutional development of party politics can function. Opposition parties can not only challenge the government but also set out alternative visions.
It is easy to think that these processes are things which happen behind closed doors, in stuffy meetings or, alternatively, in press articles or on the airwaves, or through raising matters in correspondence with Ministers.
All this is true. I would argue, however, that what happens inside the Chamber is still more important than what happens outside it.
Debate remains fundamental to our parliamentary democracy. Debates tell you whether Ministers know their stuff, whether a Government has a coherent line, whether there is a good reason for policy, whether the Opposition’s criticisms are well-founded, and its policies developed. Debates test their participants.
Debates on the floor of the House are often wrongly characterised as extremes: either they are aggressive bearpits, such as PMQs, or tedious, poorly-attended technical debates.
In fact, debates perform many functions (and trust me because I’ve seen them all!). Let’s start with the lowest key debate: the daily adjournment. It might not be the most well-attended of debates, and the topics might not set the world alight, but it still has a value. The Minister has to engage with the topic, be briefed on the issues and provide a response on behalf of the Government.
Similarly, Westminster Hall debates are not always the most high-profile events (although the Parliamentary Broadcasting Team tell me that petitions debates give PMQs a good run for their money in terms of viewership), but they allow Members to bring forward important issues that matter to their constituents, to campaign groups or, in the case of the Petitions Committee, to a significant portion of the public.
Westminster Hall is different from the Chamber. It is smaller and more intimate. There is less “performance”. Debate is thoughtful, co-operative and deliberate. Ministers are, in some ways, more exposed. There is a personal dialogue between the Member and the Minister. Ministers are far more likely to commit to responses when they are in dialogue with another Member in an otherwise silent room, than if they are barracking at each other across the busy Chamber.
But it is the Chamber which, rightly, commands most attention, and where the Chair’s role is most influential and challenging. Churchill famously said that “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”. He fiercely defended the adversarial rectangular set-up of the Chamber, which enables the two-party system that is the essence of British democracy. I have always considered that to be one of Churchill’s greatest achievements.
The benefit of our bipartisan stage set is so apparent every day during Question Time. Members look Ministers in the eye and ask them questions directly. Ministers look back, (and they sometimes answer the question.)
So how does the Chair interact with all these principles? How does the Chair make the House work?
First I should say that the Speaker and his Deputies work very much as a team. Every day that the House sits the Speaker and Deputies meet with the Clerk of the House and the Clerks on duty at the Table that day for the Speaker’s Conference. At that meeting, which takes under half an hour, we discuss the day’s business. It is probably the most important and least known meeting in Parliament. It’s terribly important because it means that we have a common understanding of the day’s business and a common approach to issues which might arise.
We also discuss applications for Urgent Questions. Although Standing Order No. 14 provides for Government business to have precedence at every sitting, an Urgent Question may be inserted immediately after Departmental Questions because it is a genuinely new issue of real importance. Alternatively a UQ might be used as a device to draw out a government position if Ministers have been not been forthcoming with a Statement about a matter of serious public concern. In discussions about the decision the Speaker and the team will consider whether the request is truly time critical, whether it has national significance, the impact on other business that day and whether there are multiple applications for the same topic – and it will also consider the Government position.
We have a constant battle to make Ministers come to the despatch box to make policy announcements. This is not some archaic rule. It is the very essence of an accountable democracy that the executive must come to Parliament to announce and gain approval for Government policy. And Ministers must come here first before they go to the TV studios. Because it is MPs, not journalists and lobbyists, who have the duty to hold the Government to account on behalf of the people who elect us.
The challenge for the Chair in every decision is to balance a wide array of competing principles and interests – Members’ freedom of speech and the rules of the House, the right of the Government to have its business considered, the right of non-Government members to scrutinise Ministers, and the need to ensure that the House can function effectively without exhausting its members through a succession of late nights.
I am responsible for selection and grouping of amendments and selection of amendments for division during Committee of the whole House. It used to be the case that if an amendment was selected for debate, it would be voted upon. The introduction of programming, and the move away from open ended sittings late into the night and beyond, has many benefits one of which is that it gives more control to the Chair.
I must balance the need for debate with the need for Opposition parties to be able to vote on matters which concern them. I also need to ensure matters where there is a real uncertainty about the outcome of a vote do get put to the House – all while not keeping the House ridiculously late, which is often a poor use of Members’ time.
Because debate in the House is so important, what is said in the House is protected. The principle of Parliamentary Privilege means that the House has the right to talk about what it wants. This principle has been established for a long time. There were some squabbles about how far it extended with the Tudor and Stuart Monarchs but ultimately it has been in statute since the 1688 Bill of Rights.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the House operates without rules. What it means is that the rules are set by the House itself, formally and informally. The Chair has the privilege of enforcing and sometimes setting these rules. Members do not always wish to obey them.
Proper debate needs parameters. Some are long established, and exist because they have been found to work. Others are the result of more recent decisions, such as the rules relating to matters which are sub judice.
I will always defend the House of Commons’ adversarial set-up but there is a balance to strike. If the Chamber is not an attractive place for Members to make a speech, then they will make it somewhere else. It is a vital duty of the occupant of the Chair to ensure that every Member has the chance to be heard and that when tempers are running high the quieter, more cerebral Members are not just shouted down.
This is precisely why rules are so important. Being discourteous in the Chamber means being discourteous to Parliament and therefore being discourteous to the constituents we are elected to represent.
One of the hardest things to police is the principle that, as Erskine May says, “good temper and moderation” are the characteristics of Parliamentary language. The conventions and courtesies of the House have evolved to help support this.
For example, Members must address their remarks through the Chair. There are perfectly good reasons for this. This mode of address is more than a traditional custom of the House, it is a deliberate device to de-personalise interaction in the Chamber. It moderates debate and makes criticism less direct. There is a significant difference in tone between a Member saying, “Mr Speaker, the Member opposite is mistaken in his statement of the facts” rather than “You are wrong”.
I have an ongoing battle to make some Members understand the difference between the second person and the third person. Perhaps some of them are products of those decades when grammar wasn’t properly taught in schools. Likewise, the rule against accusing another Member of lying is not just a quaint nicety. It is perfectly proper to debate a Member’s personal conduct on a substantive motion, as we have seen recently. That is part of accountability. What is improper is to make slurs or accusations against someone who may not be there to defend themselves. The prohibition on casual accusations of misconduct not only helps keep tempers in the Chamber it also, these days, prevents such accusations being clipped and disseminated on social media.
It can be a difficult balance to achieve. The Chair has to allow Members the freedom to question. It can be very difficult to detect that something is going to be said until it is too late. And then one has the dilemma that intervention from the Chair may draw attention to the remark, and sometimes it is best left to fade. This is something we discuss frequently at the Conference. As Members increasingly try to break the spirit of the rule while keeping to the letter, we become more willing to intervene and challenge.
Behind-the-scenes there are several things we do to remind Members of these rules: quiet words with Members in the Chamber, writing formal letters – which we did recently when Members did not bother to return for the wind-ups – or even calling a culprit later in the debate than they might have expected.
The most effective debates are the ones in which Members come to the Chamber ready to exchange ideas and listen to one another. The exchanges in UQs and statements are mostly spontaneous, since there is little or no notice of what the Minister will say or what others will ask. This may be one reason why UQs and statements are growing in significance.
But that spontaneity would benefit other debates as well. A speech in the House of Commons ought to be made with a few notes on a small bit of paper. It should not be read out verbatim from an iPad. Some bad habits were formed while we had hybrid proceedings during the pandemic. I am constantly encouraging Members to get back to normal and a higher standard of debate. There is quite a difference between properly engaging in a debate and just reading out your three-minute essay as if you were reading it for your teacher at school. We need to get back to a better level of rhetoric in the House where Members can take an intervention and have the confidence to know they can also finish their speech without losing the thread of what they are saying.
As a debate proceeds, it is sometimes necessary for the Chair to set time limits. There is a careful balance to strike between ensuring that as many Members as possible have the opportunity to contribute to a debate by setting shorter time limits and allowing more time for Members to make proper speeches.
I am always reminding Members that succinctness in speech-making is powerful. It is amazing how many people forget that brevity is the soul of wit. So that brings me to my conclusion.
Debate in the House of Commons when done properly reinforces a sense of common purpose. It can be difficult in the present day to keep a sense of collective institution.
But this is precisely what the House of Commons is: its common purpose is not to oppose policy blindly but to ensure that the policy put forward has proper discussion and scrutiny.
At key moments in history, such as the pandemic and the death of Her late Majesty the Queen, the House of Commons rightly plays a central role. It is a collective cross-party institution.
I hope that tonight I have given you some insight into how the Chair endeavours to protect the precious institution that is Parliament. It is my ambition that the Chamber of the House of Commons, not the TV studios or the Twittersphere, will continue to be the main focus and forum for public debate.