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By Ben Guerin
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The role of the Speaker is changing

5 min read

Speakers now have to consider the impact of their personal public profile and how this relates to their responsibilities, says Bernard Jenkin MP

Last week the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) took evidence on how the office of Speaker has developed, what are the role and functions of a modern Speaker, and what changes could assist future Speakers. 

The Speaker of the House of Commons is one of the oldest civil offices in the British State dating back to fourteenth century, when the Speaker was essentially a rapporteur for the House. While the Office of Speaker in many respects has changed, the Speaker remains the representative of the House of Commons and the only person who speaks for the Commons as a corporate whole. There are today three main functions of the office of Speaker: to represent the House of Commons; to act as presiding officer in the Common Chamber; and to carry out a range of administrative duties in regard to the management of the House Service and the parliamentary estate.

PACAC’s evidence session explored what each of these functions entails for a Speaker in the 21st century and the challenges of balancing three different functions. For example, Lord Norton told the Committee that each of these functions requires particular skills and the question in thinking about the Office of Speaker is whether you can find an individual who can combine those skills. Lord Lisvane said that while the representative and presiding functions had developed along with changes in parliamentary practice and culture, the administrative function has changed and increased very substantially, and he thought changes were needed to take account of this.

As former Deputy Speaker Natascha Engel told the Committee, it is a key aspect of the role of the Speaker is to facilitate the House to express its will. The session explored the extent and circumstances under which the Speaker may have to interpret and enforce the will of the House. Lord Lisvane, the former Clerk of the Commons, and Dr Paul Seaward, Director of the History of Parliament, told the committee that there is a long history of this. The former Leader of the House Lord Young also said that it is the role of the Speaker to enforce the will of the House unless it is in tension with Standing Orders, where it should be for the House to resolve the tension.

Lord Norton, the constitutional historian, highlighted that the Speaker is both “servant and master within the House”, but that this role means they cannot be cognizant of anything beyond the House. Dr Hannah White from the IfG said that the Speaker is there to interpret the will of the House; it is for the Government and Members to interpret and represent the will of the country and their constituents. A fact that is brought into greater tension in the context of both the 2016 referendum and the current minority Government

Speakers today operate in an environment quite different from their predecessors. Lord Norton said that the introduction of first radio and then television broadcasting together with ending of the practice of wearing a wig has led to the Speaker becoming a more recognisable public figure. This has been added to more recently, as Dr White pointed out, by the growth of digital and social media that creates great pressure on the House to be relevant and topical. This has meant that Speakers now have to consider the impact of their personal public profile and how this relates to their functions and responsibilities as Speaker.

What was clear throughout the evidence was that the key convention of impartiality of the Speaker – that has been clearly established since the nineteenth century – remains central to the role. This impartiality is demonstrated in the act of new Speakers giving up their party allegiance upon taking up the office, and on ceasing to be Speaker retiring from the House.

Lord Lisvane said while it cannot be expected that a Speaker be entirely neutral on every issue, it is expected that they be impartial, in the sense that it should be clear that decisions are not “swayed by the origin of a suggestion or the individual who is making it”. Lord Young said he thought being Speaker was analogous to being a referee in the Chamber: “neutral, respected, authoritative, whose interest is in seeing a fair game”.

With the election of a new Speaker approaching there was consideration of how recent changes in the election of Speaker have affected the role. Lord Young pointed out that the last two Speakers have been elected on the basis of manifestos of how they would approach the role and this has been reflected in their speakership. For example, Engel told the Committee, the current Speaker was elected on a manifesto of being a “champion of Parliament” and his speakership has reflected this.

The session also explored the idea of how Speakers might utilise the team of Deputy Speakers to share the workload and consider important decisions as a group, although the witnesses were clear that the ultimate responsibility for decisions had to remain with the Speaker.

There was also consideration of the idea of establishing a special select committee to consider the role and powers of the Office of Speaker and potentially the need to go beyond this to consider the wider governance of the House. The Committee is now considering the evidence taken and I plan to advice the committee to produce a report setting out potential steps forward after the election of the new Speaker.

Bernard Jenkin is Conservative MP for Harwich & North Essex and chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The transcript for the session is available on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee website

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