Sat | Mar 28, 2020

Legal Scoop | The role of the Speaker of the House

Published:Sunday | January 26, 2020 | 12:35 AMShena Stubbs-Gibson
Jamaica’s Speaker of the House of Representatives Pearnel Charles.

This week, Legal Scoop will take a brief look at the Jamaican Constitution as it relates to the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and to make a comparison with what exists in Britain.

As is well known, the Jamaican parliamentary system is largely fashioned from the British parliamentary system. It is also well known that Britain does not have a written Constitution but relies on a number of conventions and traditions to guide itself. Jamaica, on the other hand, has a written constitution drafted, with the assistance of the British, around the time of Independence in 1962. In both systems, there exists the office of the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament. In both systems, the speaker is expected to conduct his office in a fair and impartial manner. His job is to see that other members keep within the rules of the House, that the rights of the Opposition members are protected, and that every member gets a fair hearing. The Speaker is perhaps best known as the person who keeps order and calls members of parliament (MPs) to speak during debates in the Lower House. The Speaker calls MPs in turn to give their opinion on an issue. MPs signal that they want to speak by standing up from their seat (a custom known as ‘catching the Speaker’s eye’) or they can notify the Speaker in advance by writing.

The Speaker has full authority to make sure MPs follow the rules of the House during debates. The safeguards that exist in Britain, in order to achieve this end, are far more stringent than those that exist in the Jamaican Constitution.

The Jamaican Constitution

In Jamaica, the office of the speaker of the house is created by section 43 of the Jamaica Constitution Order in Council 1962. It states as follows:

(1) When the House of Representatives first meets after any dissolution of Parliament, and before it proceeds to the despatch of any other business, it shall elect one of its members, not being a minister or a parliamentary secretary, to be Speaker; and whenever the office of Speaker is vacant otherwise than by reason of a dissolution of Parliament, the House of Representatives shall, not later than its second sitting after the vacancy has arisen, elect another such member to fill that office.

(2) Upon the Speaker’s being elected and before he enters upon the duties of his office, he shall (unless he has already done so in accordance with the provisions of section 62 of this Constitution) make and subscribe before the House of Representatives the oath of allegiance.

The method of election is not detailed in the Constitution, but needless to say, the Speaker would, invariably, come from the ranks of the party forming the government, they having the majority in the house. The Speaker remains a member of the ruling party and is counted among the members in parliament that make up the majority of the ruling party and are in support of the prime minister. The holder of the office of Speaker of the House invariably changes on a change of government. Also, if the Speaker loses his seat in the House or is appointed a minister or parliamentary secretary, he is no longer qualified to be Speaker.

Perception of Fairness

In Jamaica, we seem to be struggling with our attempt to achieve the stated goal of the perception of a fair and impartial speaker, as, over the years, while we have had some exemplary Speakers, successive opposition party members in the House have levelled accusations of bias and partiality at the feet of some Speakers. Compare and contrast this with the situation in Britain in which the former speaker, Sir John Bercow, who recently retired, served under successive governments and was praised for his firm hand and impartiality by members of both the government and the opposition in parliament. The new speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, was elected on November 4, 2019, through using an exhaustive election process.

In order to achieve the objective of impartiality of the speaker of the house, the British have put some safeguards in place. They include:

n The Speaker must be politically impartial. Therefore, on election, the new Speaker must resign from their political party and remain separate from political issues even in retirement. However, the Speaker will deal with their constituents’ problems like a normal MP.

n The Speaker will still stand in general elections but only as an independent. He is generally unopposed by the major political parties, who will not field a candidate in the Speaker’s constituency. This includes the original party they were a member of.

n During a general election, Speakers do not campaign on any political issues but simply stand as ‘the Speaker seeking re-election’.

While our political system of governance is modelled on the Westminster system, there is clearly a lot more that we could borrow from the British way of doing things if we are desirous of achieving a similar objective.

- Shena Stubbs-Gibson is an attorney-at-law and legal commentator. Send feedback to: Email: shena.stubbs@gleanerjm.com, Twitter:@shenastubbs