The Speaker of the House of Commons occupies a pivotal role in shaping how Parliament debates issues and passes legislation. The role has come under renewed scrutiny as Brexit continues its parliamentary journey.
The Speaker is an MP, with the post occupied by John Bercow since 2009. The modern Speaker is politically impartial and expected to avoid taking a political stance or favouring particular interests over others. To ensure this, the Speaker is expected to resign from their party on appointment and do not campaign in general elections – usually standing unopposed by the major political parties. However, they are still a serving MP and undertake constituency work.
The role of the Speaker is almost as old as Parliament itself and has evolved significantly over time. Originally the Speaker was the monarch’s de facto representative in Parliament. From the 18th century onwards, the Speaker gained greater independence, beginning to represent the collective voice of Parliament.
The Speaker is elected by a secret ballot of MPs at the beginning of a new Parliament (following a general election), or following the resignation, death or retirement of the previous incumbent.
If the Speaker in post wishes to retain the role following a general election, they do not need to be re-elected by secret ballot and can instead be reappointed by a motion passed by a majority of MPs.
The role of the Speaker is multi-faceted; part-Chair, part-referee, part symbolic representative of the Commons as a whole. Their responsibilities include:
The Speaker has an important role in controlling debate in the Commons. While most business in the House is largely controlled and timetabled by the Government, the Speaker can lengthen or curtail debate before the point of ‘closure’, when a motion or bill goes to a vote.
Deciding who can speak
MPs do not have an automatic right to speak during debates and the Speaker must balance MPs' participation with ensuring the smooth running of parliamentary business. Those wishing to speak will try and ‘catch the Speaker’s eye’, rising from their seats briefly once the previous MP has finished their contribution.
In deciding who to call, the Speaker will consider:
- the standard practice of calling the official spokespeople from the Government and the Opposition to bookmark the ends of a debate
- whether some MPs have a specific interest in the topic being debated (such as a direct constituency link or policy expertise)
- an MP’s seniority
- whether an MP has had a previous opportunity to contribute
- the time available for the debate
- the need to protect the rights of parliamentary minorities. Whether minorities have had a chance to contribute can be an important consideration in deciding whether to bring a debate to an end.
The Speaker has the power to decide whether, and which, amendments to bills or motions can be debated and voted on. This risks putting the Speaker in a highly political position, having to make a judgement on which amendments are worthy of debate. However, there are several principles that guide the Speakers’ decisions and seek to ensure impartiality:
- The need to protect the rights of parliamentary minorities. The Speaker will usually allow amendments tabled by the Opposition frontbench as a point of principle. However, they may also select a key backbench amendment to provide an opportunity for parliamentary minorities to air their views.
The Speaker will generally not choose amendments that are ‘out of order’, meaning that they:
- are submitted late
- are vague
- are out of scope (meaning not sufficiently related to the subject matter of the bill or motion they are tabled against)
- cover issues already considered in depth during the debate
- do not make sense or would mean part of the bill didn’t make sense (wrecking amendments).
- Similar amendments may be grouped together in order to better structure the debate.
While these principles provide a good guide as to how the Speaker will select amendments, they may be departed from should other interests outweigh them. The Speaker’s role in selecting amendments puts pressure on both the Government and Opposition frontbenches. The Government has to be mindful of what amendments might be placed on its bills or motions; the Opposition has to consider which amendments might be put to a vote and must carefully consider what amendments other backbenchers may put forward and whether these will undermine its approach.
Allowing Urgent Questions or Emergency Debates:
The Speaker can decide to allow Urgent Questions or Emergency Debates – both important means for backbenchers and the Opposition to force ministers to the Despatch Box and raise the political profile of an issue.
Exercising the casting vote
One of the most important, albeit very rarely used, powers the Speaker has is to exercise the casting vote in the event of a draw. The use of this power is governed by a long-standing principle aimed at maintaining the Speaker’s impartiality, namely that they should not vote against the overall majority. The Speaker should vote in favour of allowing further discussion and avoid making final decisions by a casting vote. In practice, this means that a tie at second reading should be resolved by the Speaker voting for the bill – on the basis that there will then be opportunity for further discussion. At third reading they would vote against, on the basis that the law should not be changed except with the will of the entire House.
This power was used seven times between 1974 and 1979. It was almost needed when the Callaghan Government was defeated on a vote of confidence of 311 versus 310. It was most recently exercised on 22 July 1993 during the parliamentary vote on the Maastricht Treaty, when votes were tied on 317. The then Speaker Betty Boothroyd voted against the Leader of the Opposition’s amendment on the basis that the decision should only be taken by a majority. But the Government lost the vote on the motion itself.
Upholding parliamentary rules
The Speaker is also responsible for maintaining order in the House and ensuring Standing Orders (parliamentary rules) are upheld. MPs can ask the Speaker to decide whether actions are within parliamentary rules by making a ‘Point of Order’. In practice, this mechanism is also used by MPs to try to draw attention to their opponent’s actions and score political points.
If the Speaker deems the rules of the House have been broken, they can rule MPs out of order; require them to withdraw their comments; suspend MPs for a day (or invite the House to suspend them for longer by ‘naming them’); or, in extremis, suspend the House.
The Speaker can also make definitive interpretations of parliamentary rules and procedures through ‘Speaker’s rulings’. They will draw on advice from the Clerks and the Deputy Speakers, but the Speaker is the ultimate arbiter.
The Speaker’s interpretation of the parliamentary rules can be controversial. On 18 March 2019, Speaker John Bercow made a statement confirming that the Government cannot ask the Commons a question which is ‘substantially’ the same as a question it has already been asked in the same session – pointing to long-standing precedent and quoting from the parliamentary guidebook Erskine May. Unless MPs expressly vote to disapply this rule, the Speaker’s decision prevents the Government bringing back its Brexit deal to the Commons for a third ‘meaningful vote’ except if the question put to MPs is, in the Speaker’s view, substantially different from the previous meaningful vote held on 12 March – demonstrating the Speaker’s significant gatekeeping role.
The Speaker can also decide whether complaints of privilege – allegations that an MP, servant of the House or a select committee has been obstructed or threatened – should proceed.
The current Speaker John Bercow is widely thought to have been more willing to exert Parliament’s authority over the Government. For instance, he has:
allowed far greater use of Urgent Question and Emergency Debates as a mechanism for MPs to hold the Government to account. In his first five years in the role, he granted 177 Urgent Questions. His predecessor Michael Martin allowed just two Urgent Questions in his final parliamentary session in 2008–09.
allowed a third amendment to the 2013 and 2017 Queen’s Speeches, despite the usual practice being to only select two. During the 2017 debate, the Speaker selected Stella Creasy’s backbench amendment calling for funding for support to Northern Irish women seeking abortions to be debated. The Government conceded the point and gave reassurances to the House, and to Creasy herself, and the amendment was withdrawn.
tended to permit more MPs to speak in debates and take more points of order
allowed MPs to amend a supplementary business motion, usually considered to be amendable only by the Government.
Some of these decisions have been controversial, and in 2015 the Government tried to pass a motion requiring Speaker John Bercow to be re-elected by secret ballot in an effort to replace him. However, it failed to gain enough support from MPs to depart from the usual procedure.
MPs can criticise the Speaker by putting down a substantive motion for debate, which the Government can provide time for it to be debated on the floor of the House. Only three such motions have been debated since the Second World War.
If MPs vote to criticise (or ‘censure’) the Speaker’s behavior, the Speaker would come under pressure to resign, but is not automatically ousted from post.