The role of the Speaker

On Tuesday, I was one of several witnesses to give evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the House of Commons in its inquiry into the role of the Speaker. You can watch the session here; my panel starts at 11.43.

There is a tendency to look at Speakers in terms of their role in the chamber.  However, as I said my evidence, the Speaker has three roles, relating to three distinct domains: the chamber, the parliamentary estate covering the House of Commons, and the world beyond Westminster. Each requires different skills.

The first requires the Speaker to act as a ringmaster – as I mentioned, not so much in the sense of a circus, but a wrestling ring (the Speaker doesn’t book the acts, but he has to referee and recognise also that there is an audience for the performance).  The challenge has become greater recently because of a minority government and conflict over Brexit.  That challenge is all too apparent.

The second requires strategic skills.  The Speaker chairs the House of Commons Commission, which has a statutory responsibility to set strategic responsibilities and objectives for the services provided by the House departments, employs the staff of the House (other than the Clerk, Clerk Assistant and Serjeant at Arms), lays the budget for House services before the House, and determines the structures and functions of the departments of the House.  The challenges here are greater than before because of the Restoration and Renewal Programme (preparing for the great decant in a few years), security, and the Cox report on bullying and harassment.

The third requires major communication skills.  The challenge is acute now because of the collapse of trust in the House of Commons.  Previously, as I have argued, people did not trust MPs.  Now they do not trust the House of Commons.  The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the House comprises the sum of its parts.  There are different leadership roles in the House, especially the Leader of the House and the Speaker.  There are problems in providing a clear institutional response to criticisms levelled against the House.

The task facing MPs is to elect a Speaker who has the skills to tackle these challenges.  It may be that no one individual has all the requisite skills.  One possibility raised in the session was possibly hiving off responsibility for chairing the House of Commission to another member.  It may be that the House may also need a separate figure to act as spokesperson, or face, of the House, leaving the Speaker to focus on what happens in the chamber.  And as I have argued before, the House needs the collective will to act in the face of public opprobrium.  It cannot be left solely to one person.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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5 Responses to The role of the Speaker

  1. Dean B says:

    Regarding the idea of “splitting up the jobs”, couldn’t the Speaker simply spend less time in the Chamber, delegating more to the deputy speakers? I may be completely wrong but my observation is that Mr Bercow seems to almost always be in the chair, every time I switch on the Parliament Channel. Under previous speakers there seemed to be far more of a rotation. I don’t have any evidence of that but would be interested to know if there is any way of finding out.

    • Lord Norton says:

      The Speaker and Deputy Speakers do share out the role, though the Speaker traditionally presides over Question Time and will tend to take important debates. The Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means also has a separate role, independent of the Speaker, both in respect of private legislation and chairing the Budget debate.

  2. maude elwes says:

    The role of present Speaker has totally eclipsed the way our constitution functioned. Had we a written constitution what we are witnessing today would be unlawful.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Having a codified constitution would not have necessarily made the slightest difference, be it to the Speaker’s role or more generally to the situation we face.. ‘Oh, if we had a codified constitution, this would not have happened’ keeps been trotted out to whatever it is that people disapprove of, apparently having perfect knowledge of what would be included in a codified constitution and knowledge of why similar situations in nations with codified constitutions would not be replicated here. One cannot know the effect of a codified constitution without knowing its provisions.

      • Indeed one cannot always know the effect of a codified constitution while being expert in its provisions. A high percentage of SCOTUS cases involve deciding between groups of experts with authority, standing and precedent on both sides who disagree as to how the codified constitution should be interpreted and applied.

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