What does the Speaker of the House of Commons do?

1 month ago 22
Media caption,

Tensions rise towards Speaker in Commons Gaza debate

By Jennifer Clarke

BBC News

The future of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, is under threat, after a Gaza-ceasefire debate descended into chaos.

Dozens of MPs have called for his resignation.

Who is the Speaker and what do they do?

Sir Lindsay Hoyle was elected as Speaker on 4 November 2019, following the resignation of the previous Speaker, John Bercow.

Sir Lindsay was originally elected to Parliament as Labour MP for Chorley, Lancs, but the role of the Speaker is politically impartial.

Incoming Speakers resign from their party when appointed and typically stand unopposed in general elections held during their term in office, but can still undertake work on behalf of their constituents.

The role of the Speaker dates back several centuries, and is almost as old as Parliament itself, but has evolved significantly over time.

The modern Speaker has a number of important duties:

  • controlling Commons debates
  • deciding who can speak
  • choosing which amendments can be heard
  • upholding parliamentary rules
  • allowing urgent questions or emergency debates
  • exercising the casting vote in the event of a tie

Former Conservative MP Eleanor Laing is the current deputy Speaker.

The House of Lords has its own Speaker, currently Lord McFall of Alcluith.

What happened with the Gaza vote on Wednesday?

Sir Lindsay is accused of "playing party politics" by going against the usual parliamentary convention, to allow a vote on a Labour motion for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire" in Gaza.

Wednesday had been designated an SNP opposition day in the Commons.

Normally, the nominated opposition party - in this case the Scottish National Party - proposes a motion for debate. And typically only the government is allowed to suggest amendments to an opposition motion.

But Sir Lindsay decided to let MPs vote on a Labour amendment.

He said this was so MPs could express their view on "the widest range of propositions" - but critics say he let Labour hijack the Gaza debate.

The move meant Labour MPs could call for a ceasefire, without backing the differently worded SNP motion, which could have split the party.

A number of SNP and Conservative MPs walked out of the Commons chamber in protest.

Sir Lindsay later apologised but more than 50 MPs have called for his resignation.

How is the Speaker chosen - and can they be sacked?

The Speaker is elected by a secret ballot of MPs at the beginning of a new Parliament after a general election - or following the death or retirement of their predecessor.

If the Speaker wishes to continue in their post after a general election, they do not need to be re-elected by secret ballot and can instead be reappointed if a majority of MPs vote in their favour.

There is no formal mechanism for MPs to oust the Speaker from their role.

Erskine May, the "bible" of parliamentary procedure, explains that once elected, the Speaker "continues in that office during the whole Parliament, unless in the meantime they resign or are removed by death".

MPs can criticise the Speaker by putting down a motion against them. And the government of the day can provide time for it to be debated on the floor of the House.

But there is a precedent for a Speaker being pressurised into a resignation.

Image source, PA

Image caption,

Lord Martin was pressurised into resigning as Commons Speaker, in May 2009, in the wake of the expenses scandal

Michael Martin, who served in the role from 2000 to 2009, stepped down after criticism of his handling of the MPs' expenses scandal.

He said he wanted to maintain the unity of the House of Commons.

Former Speakers are traditionally offered a life peerage in the House of Lords.

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