Thursday, 7 June 2007
Lord Speaker - Champion of the Upper House
Yesterday afternoon I ventured into the Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Justice (the month old successor to the Department for Constitutional Affairs) to hear Baroness Hayman, the first Speaker of the House of Lords, address a small group about her newly created office.
The position of Lord Speaker was established through the Constitutional Reform Act, 2005, depriving the Lord Chancellor of his ancient function as the Upper Chamber's presiding officer. The Government believed that the Lord Chancellor's varied roles as moderator of the House of Lords, cabinet minister and head of the judiciary left the Government open to challenges under the Human Rights Act. Thus can it be argued that the creation of the position of Lord Speaker is directly related to the European Union's increasing influence over Britain's constitution.
Baroness Hayman was elected Lord Speaker in July 2006, making her and the surviving hereditary peers the most democratic element within the otherwise wholly-appointed chamber. There is surely some irony to the fact that, having been elected, those who now sit in the Lords by virtue of their ancient pedigree have a greater claim to democratic legitimacy than those who have arrived in the Lords following a long career in the House of Commons.
Baroness Hayman, whose term runs for five years, explained that the term "Lord Speaker" has been in use for over four centuries but that the Lord Chancellor's role as a "Speaker" was far more minimalist than that of his Commons counterpart. Unlike the Commons, the "Other Place" is largely self-governing and thus the Lord Speaker's tasks remain far less onerous and far less procedural. The Lord Speaker does not select members to speak, select proposed legislative amendments or engage in the other activities most normally associated with Mister Speaker. One will not find this lady calling "Order! Order!".
What, then, does the Lord Speaker do? In many respects, the role of the Lord Speaker is to act as an ambassador for the Upper House. One might say that the Speaker is the chief PR officer: debating, defending, advocating for and upholding the House of Lords against criticism and attack. The Speaker exists to dispell myths and set the record straight. I was heartened to hear Baroness Hayman enter into a spirited defence of the Lords. Such a refreshing sound!
Alas, I was disappointed and, indeed, annoyed to learn that this Government treats the office of Lord Speaker as unequal to that of Mister Speaker. For whilst Mister Speaker enjoys the benefit of an official residence within the Palace of Westminster, no similar accommodation has been afforded the Lord Speaker; this despite the fact that the Lord Chancellor's apartment is vacant and ideally suited for the purpose(particularly given the sumptuous refurbishment provided by the Prime Minister's first Lord Chancellor!). One can only assume a political motivation. I detest such petty and meaningless actions. They achieve nothing and are the product of small minds.
More annoying, dare I say infuriating, is the completely ludicrous ranking accorded the Lord Speaker. As any properly educated schoolchild will proudly reveal, legislation passes from Commons to Lords prior to receiving Royal Assent. The Lords is the "Upper House" with the Commons ranking below. Yet, inexplicably, the Lord Speaker follows Mr. Speaker in the Table of Precedence. What lunacy! One need merely look to the Canadian situation to see the correct order, with the Speaker of the Senate taking precedence immediately before the Speaker of the Commons. The decision to rank the Lord Speaker after the Speaker of the House of Commons is a purely political decision (the unconstitutional illogical logic presumably being that the Lords is subordinate as it is an unelected ratification chamber) which makes a mockery of our constitutional system. Quite simply it stinks. I for one find it indefensible and deplorable.
I was afforded the opportunity to address the Lord Speaker and I did raise this point, in diplomatic terms. Baroness Hayman, who must remain neutral and non-partisan at all times, carefully acknowledged that the subject of precedence had caused some debate but, quite understandably, declined to comment further.
It will come as no surprise that as a High Tory and a traditionalist I am steadfastly opposed to change. Nevertheless, once change has occurred, and however much one may lament the loss of that which went before, one must soberly analyse the current situation and determine its palatability. I am pleased to say that I was impressed by Baroness Hayman and found her defence of the Upper Chamber encouraging. The Lord Speaker's role as Champion of the Lords is also to be welcomed. Whereas the Lord Chancellor might not have advocated for the Lords with much enthusiasm, a separate and independent Lord Speaker is now able to defend and promote the Upper Chamber with all guns blazing. And that is a good thing.