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Speaker of the British House of Commons

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In the British House of Commons the Speaker of the House of Commons controls the day to day running of the house. It is he (or she) that decides who may speak and has the powers to discipline members who break the procedures of the house.



The Speaker is elected by Members of Parliament (MPs) from amongst their own ranks. There are two methods for electing a speaker. One is used after a General election when the previous Speaker indicates that he or she wishes to continue in office. The other procedure is used when a Speaker does not choose to return to office, dies, or resigns.

If a new Speaker is to be elected, the Father of the House becomes the presiding officer. Candidates must be nominated by at least twelve members; at least three of these members must not share a party with the candidate being proposed. If there is only one candidate, then the House votes on a motion that the candidate be elected. If there are multiple candidates, the House votes by secret ballot. In the event that no candidate receives a majority, the House votes again, but the candidate who received the fewest votes and also any candidate who received less than five percent of the votes are immediately excluded. Even if the ballot yields a definitive result, the Speaker is officially elected only when the House formally approves a motion to elect that candidate.

If a Speaker seeks re-election after a general election, and this is confirmed by the presiding officer (again the Father of the House), then the House votes on a motion that the speaker be re-elected. If the motion fails, then the procedure of nominated candidates and secret ballots will be used.

When running in a general election it is the custom in Britain for the Speaker to not run under any party affiliation (on the ballot, his or her affiliation is listed as Speaker seeking re-election). It is also the custom among major parties not to run a candidate in the Speaker's constituency though this has not prevented minor parties and independents from running.

From time to time the suggestion is made that so as to ensure that the constituency does not feel disenfranchised and that the Speaker does not have to enter partisan politics, that a special constituency such as "St. Stephens" or "Palace of Westminster" should be created, thus making the Speaker the MP for Parliament itself. However this idea has not yet borne fruit.

After a Speaker is chosen, he must be formally granted the Queen's approval before he may take office. On the day after the election, the Speaker-elect leads the House of Commons to the House of Lords Chamber, where Lords Commissioners appointed by the Queen confirm the Speaker in the Queen's name. Thereafter, the Speaker symbolically requests "in the name and on behalf of the Commons of the United Kingdom, to lay claim, 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 require." After the Lords Commissioners, on the behalf of the Queen, confirm the Commons rights and privileges, the Commons return to their Chamber.

If a Speaker is chosen in the middle of a Parliament due to a vacancy in the office, he must receive the Queen's approval as before, but does not again lay claim to the Commons rights and privileges.

The Speaker, upon election should break ties with his or her former party as it is essential that the Speaker is seen as completely impartial. In fact even after they leave office they will take no part in normal political life and if elevated to the House of Lords will normally sit as a crossbencher

A new Speaker is expected to show reluctance to resist being taken to the chair and is customarily "dragged" by colleagues to their new position. This is a relic of the era when the Speaker as representative of the Commons could have been required to bear bad news to the Sovereign.

Ceremony and formality

The Speaker has both a ceremonial and working uniform, his working uniform consisting of a black court suit with linen bands worn with a plain black robe with a train. On occasions of state, the black robe is replaced with a long gold-laced robe and the linen bands with a lace jabot. Previously the Speaker also wore breeches, silk stockings, buckled court shoes and a full-bottomed wig at all times. In 1992, when Betty Boothroyd became the first female Speaker of the House, she did not wear the wig, which owing to Miss Boothroyd's luxuriant white curls would have been both awkward and unnecessary. Her successor, Michael Martin, though lacking a similar coiffure, has continued to eschew the full-bottomed wig, and in addition has also decided to wear trousers and normal shoes instead of the traditional breeches, silk stockings and buckled shoes.

Each day, prior to the sitting of the House, the Speaker and other officials travel in a procession from the Speaker's official apartments in the Palace of Westminster to the House Chamber. At the front of the procession is a Doorkeeper of the House, who is followed by the Serjeant-at-Arms bearing the mace. Thereafter comes the Speaker and his trainbearer, and finally the Speaker's Chaplain and the Speaker's Secretary. The procession takes an indirect and elaborate route to the House of Commons. The route was adopted during World War II, when the Commons Chamber was bombed, thus requiring them to sit in the House of Lords Chamber. After the Commons Chamber was rebuilt in 1950,[1] the longer procession was retained, for it provides a ceremony that may be viewed by the general public.

The Speaker as presiding officer

The Speaker is much more powerful than his Lords counterpart, the Lord Chancellor. It is the Speaker who determines whom to call to speak. Traditionally, the Speaker alternates between members of the Government party and of the Opposition parties. Furthermore, the Speaker may declare time limits, subject to certain minimums set by the House's Standing Orders (rules), for speeches, prior to the commencement of debate. Also, the Speaker may decide to overrrule a closure motion, which seeks to end debate in the House. In addition, the Speaker may allow or disallow a debate on the breach of parliamentary privilege.

The Speaker may make a ruling on all points of order, or objections made by members asserting that a rule of the House has been broken. Furthermore, he has various powers that he may use against disruptive members. For instance, he may order a member to withdraw an offensive remark. If a member disobeys any of the Speaker's instructions, he may be ordered to leave the House for the remainder of the day's sitting. For further disobedience, the Speaker may "name" a member by saying "I name Mr ..." Then, the House may proceed to consider a motion to suspend the offending member for a number of days as provided for by the rules. In the case of "grave disorder," the Speaker may adjourn the entire sitting without the House having to vote on a motion for adjournment.

Other functions of the Speaker

In addition to his role as presiding officer, the Speaker performs several other functions on the behalf of the House. He represents the body in relations with the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and also with non-Parliamentary bodies. He also chairs the House of Commons Commission, which is responsible for controlling or overseeing services and benefits provided to members.

The Speaker is in charge of various proceedings relating to vacant seats in the House. Upon a vacancy occurring, the Speaker may, if the House is in session, issue a Warrant authorising the issue of writs of election, but only after the House passes a motion to the same effect. When the House is not in session, he may still issue the Warrant if any two members certify that the seat is vacant.


The Speaker is assisted by three deputies. The most senior deputy has the title of "Chairman of Ways and Means", where Ways and Means is a defunct parliamentary committee associated with finance bills. The other two deputies are the First Deputy and Second Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means. The Speaker does not preside during all House sessions; deputies take the chair for a very high proportion of the time, and if a Committee of the Whole House is meeting, which is the procedure for bills of special importance such as changes to the constitution or finance houses, the Speaker never presides.

The casting vote

The Speaker or Deputy that is chairing the House may not vote in divisions, except when a vote is tied, when the occupant of the Chair must cast the "casting vote." In exercising the casting vote, the Speaker should not vote in accordance with their own conscience, or the instructions of a party whip, but is expected to adhere to certain unwritten conventions:

  • The Speaker should vote so as not to decide the question. This means that, where possible, they should give the house the opportunity to consider the question further before coming to a final determination upon it. This gives the house further opportunity to come to a decision supported by a majority and means that the Speaker's vote will less likely determine the final outcome.
  • A motion should be approved by the majority. This means that the Speaker should usually vote against a motion when there is a tie.
  • The Speaker should vote to leave a bill in its existing form, and therefore should always vote against an amendment.

The very large membership of the House of Commons means that instances of an 'equality of votes' are very rare, and in recent times they have been growing even less common. From 1801-2000 there were only 49 ties (if one does not include votes erroneously recorded as such). As of 2003, the last true tie in the House of Commons occurred in 1980 (although in 1993 a vote on the Maastricht Treaty was initially believed to have been a tie, but this was quickly discovered to have been an error).

Speakers of the House from 1376


  • Dasent, Arthur Irwin. The Speakers of the House of Commons. London: John Lane, 1911.
  • "House of Commons: Tied Divisions" in Boothroyd, D, (2004). United Kingdom Election Results. Retrieved 17 Mar. 2004 from

Related topics

External links

  • British Parliament Factsheet M2 about the Speaker (pdf document)

Last updated: 02-19-2005 12:22:16
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55