The role of the Speaker has expanded over time but it was not until the mid 19th century that the post of an official Deputy Speaker was formalised and combined with the Chairman of Ways and Means, a role which has its own distinct responsibilities.
Formalising the Deputy Speakership
There were informal methods by which MPs deputised for the Speaker in the Chair prior to the creation of the formal position of Deputy Speaker. For example, prior to the Civil War, a Privy Counsellor might take the chair when the Speaker was ill or otherwise absent.
The problem of a more permanent solution to Speakers’ absences was evidently not considered until the middle of the 19th century, when a select committee was appointed to consider the Speaker’s increasingly onerous workload.
Although various alternatives were considered, in the end, the committee recommended that the Chairman of Ways and Means, already a paid official and familiar with Commons procedure, should become the Speaker’s deputy. The Deputy Speaker Act 1855 made it so.
The first person to fill this combined role was Henry Fitzroy.
Provision was made for the permanent appointment of two further Deputy Speakers in 1902 and 1971, respectively, as the workload of the House increased.
The main role of the Chairman of Ways and Means is to take the Chair during unavoidable absence or absence by leave of the House of the Speaker, and perform his or her duties in relation to all proceedings in the House.
The Chairman of Ways and Means has three distinct roles from the Speaker:
- Supervision of arrangements for sittings in Westminster Hall
- General oversight of matters connected with private bills
- Chair of the Panel of Chairs with general responsibility for the work of general committees.‘General committees’ is the umbrella term for several different types of committee, the most common being those that examine public bills, but also delegated legislation committees.
Like the Speaker, the Chairman does not vote or get involved in party political matters. It has been the practice of the House to ensure that two MPs from each side of the House form the Speaker’s team of four, so that they are effectively ‘paired’ and offset each other in terms of party strengths on the benches.
The Chairman of Ways and Means is elected from the opposite side of the House from which the Speaker was elected.
For most of their respective histories, the Chairman of Ways and Means and the two other Deputy Speakers were nominated by the Leader of the House after consultation with ‘the usual channels’ – that is, the leadership of the main parties.
Following reforms to the House’s procedures in 2010, the Commons elected its Deputy Speakers by secret ballot for the first time.