As we have seen in some of our previous blogs, the role of Speaker of the House has a long history, but it wasn’t until the late 20th century that women took to the Speaker’s Chair. Through the History of Parliament Oral History Project we have been able to interview some of the female former MPs who occupied the roles of Speaker and Deputy Speaker, including Helene Hayman, the first Lord Speaker. Here, Emme Ledgerwood uses these interviews to explore their roles, the work of the Speaker’s team, and their status as women Speakers.
The tradition of a presiding officer in the UK Parliament stretches back to the mid-thirteenth century, a role that acquired the title of Speaker towards the end of the fourteenth century. However it is was not until 1970 that a woman sat in the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Commons.
Only eight women have ever served as Speaker or as a Deputy Speaker, two of whom belong to the current Speaker’s team of three deputies. Dame Eleanor Laing, MP for Epping Forest since 1997, is the most senior as Deputy Speaker (Chairman of Ways and Means) and the first woman to hold this role when elected in 2020. Dame Rosie Winterton, MP for Doncaster Central since 1997, is First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means and Nigel Evans, MP for Ribble Valley since 1992, is the Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.
Betty Boothroyd, Baroness Boothroyd, formerly MP for West Bromwich and West Bromwich West 1973‒2000, is the only woman to have served as Speaker 1992‒2000. On the day of her election as Speaker nearly 30 years ago on 27 April 1992, Boothroyd said: “I realise the weight of responsibility. It is something more massive, more demanding than anything that I have known before. … I shall endeavour to discharge my duty to protect minority rights without ignoring the fact that majorities have rights as well. It will be a lonelier life than I have known before: no longer part of the camaraderie of the Palace of Westminster … but I hope that I may be sustained by the good will which I shall attempt to earn of the Members of all parties.”
Boothroyd was the second woman to sit in the Speaker’s Chair. The first was Betty Harvie Anderson, MP for Renfrewshire East 1959-1979, who was appointed as First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means 1970‒73.
Harvie Anderson was uncertain how MPs would react to having a woman deputy speaker, initially accepting the position on a three-month trial basis. However her firm grasp of parliamentary procedure put those fears to rest, and when Boothroyd became Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means in 1987, Hansard records the moment of this second woman taking the “big Chair” as being accompanied by cheers. On that day Ken Clarke noted that “there has been too long a gap since a woman took the Chair as Deputy Speaker.”
Boothroyd’s path to becoming deputy speaker was via the panel of chairs, a route shared by Dame Janet Fookes, MP for Merton and Morden 1970‒74 and Plymouth Drake 1974‒1997. Fookes “cherished hopes of becoming the Speaker”, but it was Boothroyd’s similar ambition that was realised in 1992. Instead Fookes succeeded Boothroyd as Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means 1993‒1997. Dawn Primarolo, Baroness Primarolo, formerly MP for Bristol South 1987‒2015, served in the same role 2010‒2015, as did Natascha Engle, MP for North East Derbyshire 2005‒2017, during 2015―2017.
In her interview for the History of Parliament Trust’s oral history project, Fookes describes the stages along the way.
However for Sylvia Heal, MP for Mid Staffordshire 1990‒92 and Halesowen and Rowley Regis 1997‒2010, “it certainly wasn’t a role I thought I’d ever have or had in my mind’s eye to be, it wasn’t an ambition I had.” [Track 20, 00:28:55]. Heal’s appointment as First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means in 2000 broke the precedent of coming to the role via the panel of chairs, but she and Fookes shared the same experience of finding day one terrifying.
It’s changed now, people are elected, both the Speaker and his deputies have to go through a secret ballot in the Chamber. At that point it was an appointment. […] The afternoon before, on the Wednesday afternoon, the chief Whip phoned me and said this was being suggested, the PM had given his approval and so had the other business managers, so it was a case that this motion would be tabled tomorrow, which it was. Then suddenly you’re Deputy Speaker. […] My name had proved to be acceptable to them, they had to see you, I guess, as somebody who would be fair, not just competent, but fair to both sides and perhaps that was apparent […] It is quite daunting I have to say to suddenly go to that Chair, I mean I’d never sat in the Chair obviously before, just knowing which side to climb up to get in and which side to get out of it so you didn’t bump into the person who was coming out of the Chair. […] It’s remembering people’s names when you’re the Speaker, I know I spent that weekend almost with a hot towel over my head and photographs and names of everybody and I sat in the dining room sort of going through and testing myself … because you’re expected to know.Sylvia Heal interviewed by Alexander Lock for the History of Parliament Oral History Project (2019), British Library C1503/172 [Track 16, 01:04:06‒01:10:54]
She went on to describe her duties when sitting in the Chair:
When you are in the Chamber and in the Chair you have all the authority of the Speaker, albeit you’re a deputy, but you’re in that position to make a decision. […] It’s learning not just the names of members, that’s important, but also what the procedure is, it’s making sure people don’t fall foul of digressing so much wide of the subject, bringing them back to order or understanding if it’s a more detailed piece of legislation in committee, the order that amendments are taken and things of that kind, and the use of language, making sure that people don’t use unparliamentary language or call each other names. So it’s generally keeping the temper of debate that would make sure there aren’t people who are abusing in any way each other or the system.Sylvia Heal [Track 17, 00:12:27‒14:27]
In this extract, Fookes explains how the Speaker’s team prepares for the day’s business:
Understanding MPs’ interests was key to how the Speaker’s team chose who might speak in a debate or at Question time, and Heal emphasised the role deputies played in gathering the information:
You are still circulating and talking and meeting up with your colleagues and you will hear that something has happened or an issue they’ve got a particular interest in, and that’s where it’s useful to feed that information in then, because the Speaker does not come into the tea rooms and the dining rooms in order to keep them really impartial, whereas the deputies still do that.Sylvia Heal [Track 19, 00:35:13‒00:35:46]
These two clips from John Sykes, MP for Scarborough, 1992‒1997, and Heal illustrate how MPs and the Speaker engage during Question Time.
Both Fookes and Heal recognised that displaying impartiality and fairness was fundamental to the role. Promising the same attitude was recognised by Helene Hayman, Baroness Hayman, MP for Welwyn and Hatfield 1974‒79, as contributing to her election as the first Lord Speaker in the House of Lords in 2006: “I think a lot of people didn’t like the idea of having a Speaker from the same party as the one in Government but because I had defied my party I think that gave a lot of people confidence that I would be independent”. [Track 8, 00:04:08‒00:04:40]
In her interview for the project, Hayman refers to her work in establishing the position of Lord Speaker as her most significant parliamentary achievement.
Hayman referred to a vote of confidence from one of her fellow Peers: “Baroness Trumpington said to me one day, ‘I disapproved of losing the Lord Chancellor and his wig, but with your hair I suppose it’ll just about do,’ which I took as a great compliment.” [Track 8, 00:20:48]
However Hayman recognised the role’s limitations: “I found it very frustrating not being allowed to be any sort of interventionist Speaker because the House needs a Speaker. … self-regulation at Question Time doesn’t work and you could have a very light touch Speakership. Instead we have the Leader of the House intervening and if any emergent democracy came to us and said, “In our Parliament we’re going to have the leader of the governing party decide who gets to speak,” we would say, “Excuse me? That’s not how you do things in Parliament.” [Track 8 00:11:17-00:11:59]
There are indications in the recorded interviews of how these women approached the role. Heal followed one of Boothroyd’s strategies to separate her two dual identities as constituency MP and deputy speaker:
It was a position that demanded a firm grasp of the personalities and atmosphere in the Chamber, as this extract from Fookes’ interview shows.
Generally speaking, the Speaker would take Questions and anything of absolute first-rate importance, so we would be filling in if you like on a very regular basis, daily but generally you would not get the more exciting bits and more the ordinary bits, but on occasion you know it could be quite tricky. I remember on one occasion the member for Bolsover, Dennis Skinner, was standing up in his seat when he shouldn’t have been, and I said to him ‘Sit down,’ and hoped he would, and the whole House waited to see if he did, and he did. … I looked upon them sometimes as naughty children—you do need to be as a teacher is, firm but fair.Janet Fookes, [Track 1, 01:27:36‒01:28:38]
While this anecdote is humorous, Fookes also spoke of being in scary, uncharted waters when taking points of order in June 1995 over the resignation of the Prime Minister. [Track 1, 01:29:10‒01:31:34]. For Heal, it was a case of making a rapid decision to suspend a sitting for 20 minutes during a debate on fox-hunting in September 2004 while protesters were removed from the floor of the Commons chamber [Track 17, 00:17:42‒00:24:36]
Finally, there is a touching story from John Bowis, MP for Battersea 1987‒1997:
When my mother had her 90th birthday, I asked Betty Boothroyd if I could bring her in to meet her because she was always a great fan of Betty’s, and she was very kind and said yes, of course. So I took her along, she had a birthday card waiting and they went in together and she said, come with me and they went and sat and had a chat on the four poster bed.John Bowis, interviewed by Emma Peplow for the History of Parliament Oral History Project (2017), British Library C1503/154 [Track 3, 00:01:14‒00:01:44].
In these few words Bowis tells us how Boothroyd blended the formalities associated with the role with her personal touch as a woman.
Interviews from the History of Parliament Oral History collection:
Helene Hayman interviewed by Emmeline Ledgerwood, 2015.
Janet Fookes interviewed by Emma Peplow, 2013.
John Bowis interviewed by Emma Peplow, 2017.
John Sykes interviewed by Rachael Johnson, 2014.
Sylvia Heal interviewed by Alexander Lock, 2019.
Interviews with two Speakers in our collection, Michael Martin and Betty Boothroyd, are currently closed.
House of Commons Library, Speakers of the House of Commons, Briefing Paper 04637a (21 August 2015)
House of Commons Library, Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means, Briefing Paper 04637b (21 August 2015)
Duncan Sutherland, ‘Anderson, (Margaret) Betty Harvie, Baroness Skrimshire of Quarter (1913‒1979)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
Matthew Seward, ‘Unsung Heroes? The Deputy Speakers of the British House of Commons’, The Journal of Legislative Studies, 3 (3), (1997)
Meg Russell and Maria Sciara, ‘The House of Lords in 2005: A More Representative and Assertive Chamber?’, UCL Constitution Unit (2006).