The current Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, will step down from the role at the end of April 2021. The process to elect the next lord speaker has been launched. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the hybrid House measures that are in place, voting will take place remotely for the first time. Voting will close on 15 April 2021. It is expected that the new lord speaker will take up the position on 1 May 2021.
This article provides an overview of the role of the lord speaker and the process by which a new speaker will be elected.
What does the lord speaker do?
The primary function of the lord speaker is to chair daily business in the House of Lords chamber, along with the deputy speakers. In addition, the lord speaker is an ambassador for the work of the House and has a role in certain ceremonies of the House.
The House of Lords is “self-regulating”, and the lord speaker has no power to rule on matters of order. The Companion to the Standing Orders states that the role of the lord speaker is to “assist, and not to rule”. Unlike the speaker of the House of Commons, the lord speaker has no power to call members to order, to decide who speaks next, or to select amendments. The Companion describes how the House of Lords regulates itself:
In practice this means that the preservation of order and the maintenance of the rules of debate are the responsibility of the House itself, that is, of all the members who are present, and any member may draw attention to breaches of order or failures to observe customs.
Initially the main duty of the speaker or their deputy was to “put the question on all motions which have been proposed”, and the clerk at the table would call the next item of business. However, in 2019 the House of Lords Procedure Committee recommended that the speaker or their deputy call the next item of business, and this was adopted.
In addition to chairing business in the House, the lord speaker has responsibilities concerning private notice questions and the application of the ‘sub judice’ rule. The lord speaker decides whether a private notice question is “of sufficient urgency and importance to justify an immediate reply” and can be asked that day. The lord speaker also has discretion to enforce the House resolution that members should not refer to any matters which are currently before UK courts (‘sub judice’).
The lord speaker can also recall the House, after consulting with the Government.
Outside the House of Lords chamber, the lord speaker chairs the House of Lords Commission, which oversees the administration of the House. The speaker is a member of the House of Lords Procedure Committee and has formal responsibility for the security of the Lords part of the parliamentary estate.
The lord speaker receives a salary, which for the forthcoming term will be £105,216 annually. The post holder is required to terminate or suspend certain outside financial interests, including paid directorships and other employment. The lord speaker is also expected to be politically impartial and does not take part in votes in the House.
The House of Lords Library briefing ‘Principal Office Holders in the House of Lords’ gives fuller background on the introduction of the current role of the lord speaker.
The rules governing the election of a new lord speaker are set out in the Standing Orders of the House of Lords.
Elections must be held at least every five years. If a lord speaker serves a full term, the election must take place before 15 July in the year five years after they were elected. The new post holder then takes office on 1 September of that year. The last election having been held in 2016, an election was due before 15 July this year (2021).
However, on 25 February 2021, Lord Fowler announced his intention to resign, rather than complete his five-year term. In this situation, the standing orders state that an election must be held within three months of the announcement of the resignation. They do not state when the new lord speaker will take office. In the April 2021 lord speaker election, voting will take place between 13 and 15 April 2021, and the new lord speaker is expected to take office on 1 May 2021.
Any Member of the House of Lords can stand for election and vote, except for those who:
- have not taken the oath in the current Parliament (to participate in the April 2021 election, members must have taken the oath before 25 March 2021);
- are subject to statutory disqualification from sitting in the House (eg holders of judicial office);
- are suspended from the service of the House; or
- are on leave of absence.
Candidates must have a proposer and a seconder, to which the same criteria apply. No one can hold the post of lord speaker for more than two terms.
The standing orders do not state which voting method is to be used, but that “the election shall be conducted in accordance with arrangements made by the clerk of the parliaments”. The alternative vote system was recommended for these elections in the report by the House of Lords committee set up to consider how the lord speaker’s role should be designed. This voting method has been used since the first lord speaker election. Under the alternative vote system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Only first preference votes are counted initially. Any candidate who receives more than 50 percent of these is elected automatically. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second choices on those ballots are allocated to the remaining candidates. This continues until one candidate has 50 percent or more of the vote in that round of counting, or there are no more votes to be distributed.
Adaptations for the 2021 election
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2021 lord speaker election will take place remotely. Members must register their intention to stand, and if they wish to propose or second someone else’s candidature, by email or letter. There will be two online hustings, on 25 March 2021 and 12 April 2021. Voting will take place, either electronically or by post (for members with particular circumstances), between 13 and 15 April 2021. It is expected that the successful candidate will be announced on 21 April 2021.
Previous lord speakers
There have been three holders of the role of lord speaker since it was established in its current form in the 2005–06 parliamentary session: Baroness Hayman, Baroness D’Souza and Lord Fowler. Neither Baroness Hayman nor Baroness D’Souza stood for a second term. Lord Fowler is the first lord speaker to have resigned before the end of his term.
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Resignation of Lord Fowler
Lord Fowler told the House of Lords that he had decided to leave the post several months before the end of his term to enable a new lord speaker to help implement proposed changes to the administration of the House:
The first reason is purely to do with the future organisation of the House. A range of important changes have been decided by the House of Lords Commission, which I chair. They include the appointment of a new chief operating officer, who will work closely with the next Clerk of the Parliaments, Simon Burton, whose appointment was announced last week. He will take the place of Ed Ollard, who has served the House so well since 2017. Other new appointments and changes, including a new clerk assistant, will be announced over the coming weeks.
It is a radical programme of reform and I think it is important that it should be seen through by the team who will be implementing it over the coming years. It is sensible that the new lord speaker should have the opportunity of helping to build the structure as we go forward.
Lord Fowler said he also wished to be “an entirely independent back-bencher”, and to be “able to speak out on political issues that concern me, such as the size of the House, and to have the freedom to campaign, particularly in the area of HIV and AIDS”.
Cover image: Copyright House of Lords 2019 / Photography by Roger Harris.