A number of different individuals and bodies provide leadership in each House. They have important powers and responsibilities, ranging from the administration of each House to stewardship of parliamentary business and procedures. This guide takes you through them.
The House of Commons elects its Speaker:
- at the start of each new Parliament; and
- during a Parliament, if the previous Speaker leaves office through retirement, resignation or death.
A Speaker election at the start of a Parliament is normally uncontested, assuming that the previous Speaker has been returned to the new House of Commons and wishes to take the post again.
A Speaker election during a Parliament is normally contested. If so, it is held by secret ballot.
Speaker election at the start of a Parliament
The election of a Speaker is the first item of business in a new House of Commons, and takes place on the first day of a new Parliament. This is because the House cannot carry out any other business until it has a Speaker.
Until the House has chosen a Speaker, the Father of the House takes the Chair.
Father of the House: the MP with the longest continuous service who is not a minister.
On the day of its first meeting, a new House of Commons meets at 2.30pm to start the Speaker election process.
The procedure for a Speaker election at the start of a Parliament is set out in Standing Order No. 1A.
Lords Commissioners: a group of Peers – usually five – who act in Parliament on behalf of the Queen when she is not present in person.
The Speaker election process gets underway in the House of Lords, when the Lords Commissioners instruct Black Rod to go to the House of Commons and deliver a ‘message to attend’ the Lords.
Black Rod: the Royal official in the House of Lords with responsibilities for order, the residual Royal estate and ceremonial occasions.
After receiving the message from Black Rod, MPs proceed to the Lords, where the Lords Commissioners direct them to choose a Speaker. MPs then return to their own Chamber and start the process of electing a Speaker immediately.
If the previous Speaker stood in the general election, he or she will almost certainly have been returned as an MP, because the Speaker stands as such, not as a party candidate, and major parties other than the Speaker’s traditionally do not stand candidates against the Speaker seeking re-election.
With the previous Speaker again a member of the House, the Father of the House, in the Chair, first asks him or her whether he or she is willing to be chosen again as Speaker. If the previous Speaker is so willing, the Chair calls an MP to move the motion “That [name of previous Speaker] do take the Chair of this House as Speaker”. The motion is put to the House without debate and is normally uncontested. This motion is unamendable.
If the previous Speaker is re-elected, he or she takes the Chair immediately.
If the motion were to be challenged, there would be a division (recorded vote) in the normal way, with MPs proceeding through the ‘Aye’ and ‘No’ lobbies.
If the motion to elect the previous Speaker were to be defeated, a Speaker election potentially by secret ballot would be held as if the previous Speaker had left office during a Parliament. The Father of the House, in the Chair, would adjourn the House immediately following the defeat of the motion, and the Speaker election would be held the following afternoon.
Speaker election by secret ballot
If a Speaker leaves office, or if the previous Speaker were to fail to be re-elected at the start of a Parliament, a process is instigated which potentially involves a contested Speaker election by secret ballot.
The procedure for a Speaker election is set out in Standing Order No. 1B. The Father of the House presides over the process.
First, any candidate must be nominated by at least 12 and no more than 15 MPs, including at least three elected to the House as members of a party other than the candidate’s or as members of no party. Nominations must be lodged with the Clerk of the House between 9.30am and 10.30am on the morning of the election, and the names of those nominated made public as soon as possible.
If only one candidate were to be nominated, there would be no secret ballot. A motion to elect the candidate would be put to the House without debate as if the candidate were the previous Speaker seeking re-election at the start of a Parliament.
However, the Speakership has been contested every time the post has fallen vacant since 1992.
Assuming there are multiple Speaker candidates, on the afternoon of the election each first addresses the House, in an order determined by lot. This is candidates’ formal opportunity to make their pitch.
Then, a first ballot is held. Each MP may vote for only one candidate. MPs vote on ballot papers, in the House of Commons division lobbies.
If any one candidate receives more than half the votes cast, the Chair immediately puts to the House without debate the motion to elect him or her as Speaker.
Otherwise, the House proceeds to a further ballot or ballots. Each time, candidates are removed who:
- received the fewest votes in the previous round; or
- received less than 5% in the previous round; or
- withdraw within 10 minutes of the result of the previous round being announced.
The process continues until one candidate receives over half the votes cast or only one candidate is left. The Chair then puts to the House without debate the motion that he or she be elected as Speaker.
By whichever method the House of Commons Speaker has been elected, he or she must still be approved formally by the Queen, represented by the Lords Commissioners in the House of Lords.
After the House of Commons has chosen a Speaker, the Lords Commissioners again despatch Black Rod to summon the Commons to the Lords. Once there, the Speaker-elect announces to the Lords Commissioners that:
“in obedience to the Royal Command, Her Majesty’s faithful Commons have, in the exercise of their undoubted rights and privileges, proceeded to the election of a Speaker, and that their choice has fallen upon myself. I therefore present myself to your Lordships’ Bar and submit myself with all humility to Her Majesty’s gracious Approbation.”
The Lord Commissioner presiding then bestows the Queen’s approval and confirmation of the new Speaker of the Commons.
Then, the Commons Speaker ‘lays claim’:
“in the name of and on behalf of the Commons of the United Kingdom … by humble petition to Her Majesty, to all their ancient and undoubted rights and privileges, especially to freedom of speech in debate, to freedom from arrest, and to free access to Her Majesty whenever occasion shall arise, and that the most favourable construction shall be put upon all their proceedings.”
The Lord Commissioner presiding then confirms “all the rights and privileges which have ever been granted to or conferred upon the Commons by Her Majesty or any of her Royal predecessors.” The new Speaker and the rest of the Commons then withdraw back to the Commons Chamber.
Normally, the ceremony of Royal Approbation takes place the day after the Commons has elected a Speaker. However, as on 4 November 2019, when Sir Lindsay Hoyle was elected with only one sitting day left before dissolution, the whole Speaker election and approbation process can be truncated to a single day.
The Speaker of the House of Commons is “the representative of the House itself in its powers, proceedings and dignity.”
What are the functions of the Speaker?
Erskine May, the authoritative guide to parliamentary procedure, identifies three key roles and responsibilities that lie with the Speaker:
- Presiding Officer – the Speaker presides over debates and enforces the rules.
- Representative – the Speaker is the spokesperson of the House in its communications with the Crown, the House of Lords, and external authorities outside Parliament.
- Administrative – the Speaker has a range of administrative responsibilities, among the most important of which is chairing the House of Commons Commission.
Of the three roles, the second and third – the representative and administrative – have changed most markedly over the last couple of decades. The Speaker today has far more administrative responsibilities than predecessors before 1979, and the issues with which the Speaker deals, as chair of the House of Commons Commission (such as human resources, finance, freedom of information, communications, security, and conservation of the Palace of Westminster) are all more complex and demanding than was the case even a decade ago. The public engagement and outreach aspects of the representative role have also grown, although each Speaker can decide the extent to which he or she wishes to focus on this aspect of the job.
Why is the impartiality of the Speaker important?
Authority and impartiality are identified as the chief characteristics required of a Speaker. Confidence in the impartiality of the Speaker is described in Erskine May as an “indispensable condition of the successful working of procedure”.
Some of the conventions of the House are designed to support the Speaker’s impartiality. The Speaker:
- takes no part in debate;
- votes only in the event of a tie; and
- stands in a general election not for his or her party but as the ‘Speaker seeking re-election’.
In some legislatures, including in the UK’s devolved legislatures, the Speaker remains a member of his or her party. However, the establishment of the role of Speaker in the Westminster Parliament pre-dates the development of the modern party system. At Westminster general elections, the convention is that none of the major parties stands a candidate against the Speaker.
What are the Speaker’s responsibilities and powers as the Presiding Officer?
The Speaker is responsible for ensuring orderly conduct in the Chamber, in respect of both the behaviour of Members and the exercise of business. The Speaker’s responsibilities and powers include (but are not limited to):
- ‘naming’, suspending, or requiring an offending Member to withdraw from the precincts of the House for a specified period because of disorderly conduct;
- suspending or adjourning a sitting because of persistent disorderly conduct;
- ordering a Member to stop speaking or to reduce the length of his or her speech;
- selecting amendments to motions and bills for debate and potential decision;
- deciding whether to accept applications for emergency debates (under Standing Order No. 24) and Urgent Questions (under Standing Order No. 21(2));
- determining whether bills, Statutory Instruments and some motions should be subject to the English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) provisions set out in Standing Orders;
- certifying Money Bills as such;
- ruling on Points of Order;
- determining whether closure motions, particularly on Private Members’ Bill (PMB) Friday sittings, should be permitted;
- restricting debate by accepting the motion that ‘the Question be now put’, which forces the House to make a decision on the matter in hand;
- preventing an obstruction in the House’s proceedings – for example, by refusing to propose the question if a motion or amendment is deemed irregular; and
- giving notice for the recall of Parliament if ministers make such a request and the Speaker is satisfied that the public interest requires it.
What are the Speaker’s responsibilities and powers in exercising the representative role?
As the spokesperson of the House in its communications with the Crown, the House of Lords, and external authorities outside Parliament, the Speaker’s responsibilities and powers include (but are not limited to):
- when summoned, attending the Queen in the House of Lords; presenting an Address on behalf of the House to the Queen on ceremonial occasions; conveying written messages from the Queen to MPs; and petitioning the Queen for the continuance of the Commons’ privileges;
- conveying resolutions of the House or other messages of thanks, condolence, sympathy, censure, or reprimand to whomever the House may direct them, and conversely communicating the receipt of such messages by the House of Commons from, for example, foreign legislatures;
- issuing warrants to the Clerk of the Crown to produce the writs for the election of new Members;
- presenting for Royal Assent Bills of Aids and Supplies;
- assessing whether bills and amendments brought from the Lords infringe the financial privilege of the Commons;
- certifying bills under the Parliament Act 1911;
- discussing with the government procedural matters of concern to Members;
- issuing warrants to execute the orders of the House and give effect to legal sanctions and communicating messages to the House in relation to the arrest or imprisonment of a Member;
- representing the House, as an institution, in a wide range of public forums to promote knowledge and understanding of the House and its work.
What are the Speaker’s responsibilities and powers in exercising the administrative role?
The Speaker has a range of administrative responsibilities, some of which are set out in statute. Some of the non-statutory responsibilities are delegated, in practice, to the Clerk of the House and other officials. The Speaker’s administrative responsibilities and powers include (but are not limited to):
- a statutory responsibility to chair the House of Commons Commission under the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, as amended by the House of Commons Commission Act 2015. The House of Commons Commission is the body tasked with responsibility for the administration and services of the House of Commons;
- appointing the Panel of Chairs to preside over general debates;
- chairing the four permanent Boundary Commissions;
- chairing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission;
- chairing the Speaker’s Committee on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA);
- issuing exemption certificates under the Freedom of Information Act 2000;
- overseeing the accuracy of the Votes and Proceedings (via the Clerk of the House) and of the Official Report of Debates (via the Editor of Hansard);
- convening and chairing Speaker’s Conferences at the request of the government to consider important matters, often pertaining to matters related to parliamentary elections and electoral law, on a cross-party basis.
The House of Commons has three Deputy Speakers, who chair debates in the Chamber when the Speaker is not present.
One Deputy Speaker is also the Chairman of Ways and Means. This means that he or she normally chairs debates in the Chamber on financial matters. He or she also has further responsibilities – in connection with legislative committees, private bills and Westminster Hall sittings – and in particular, he or she normally chairs any Committee of the whole House.
Committee of the whole House: When the House of Commons is considering a constitutional bill, the whole House – rather than the normal public bill committee – takes the bill’s committee stage.
The two further Deputy Speakers are also the First and Second Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means.
Under Standing Order No. 2A, the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Second Deputy Chairman should come from the opposite side of the House to the Speaker. The First Deputy Chairman should be from the same side of the House as the Speaker (under Speaker Hoyle, this is Labour).
The Standing Order also prescribes that among the Speaker and the three Deputy Speakers there should be at least one man and one woman.
Unlike the Speaker, the three Deputy Speakers do not resign from their party.
All three Deputy Speakers are elected at the start of a new Parliament. The process for the Deputy Speakers’ election is set out in Standing Order No. 2A. The Speaker presides over the election. Until Deputy Speakers are elected, the Speaker nominates up to three MPs to serve temporarily in the role.
The Speaker normally announces the date for the Deputy Speakers’ election around the time of the Queen’s Speech. In recent years, the election has been held between four and six sitting days after the Queen’s Speech, meaning around a week to 10 days in calendar terms.
Candidates must first be nominated, by at least six and no more than 10 MPs.
Under the default timings set out in Standing Orders, nominations are submitted between 10am and 5pm on the day before the election, and the election takes place between 11am and 12 noon.
The election takes place by secret ballot, using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.
If a single Deputy Speaker were required to be elected during a Parliament, the same arrangements would be followed but with candidates restricted to MPs coming from the required side of the House.