'Politics is a calling, it's not a nine to five job'

On her last day as Speaker, Betty Boothroyd echoes the modernisers' calls for earlier hours, to prevent ministers undermining Parliament
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Betty Boothroyd marked her last day as Speaker of the House of Commons yesterday by saying she wanted to be remembered as "a decent human being, forgiving, smiling, kindly and not bad at the job".

Betty Boothroyd marked her last day as Speaker of the House of Commons yesterday by saying she wanted to be remembered as "a decent human being, forgiving, smiling, kindly and not bad at the job".

Miss Boothroyd, 71, the first woman Speaker, spoke of the "scary" moments in the job and said Parliament must remain a vibrant institution.

"I do not want a morgue," she said. "I have seen parliaments throughout the world where they are like morgues. Member gets up, makes speech, no interruption, no intervention, sits down, next speech. No debate. Everybody's quiet. I like a robust parliament, the cut and thrust of debate. Silence in the House is neither golden, realistic nor democratic.

"But there are times when MPs go overboard and they have to be reined in. That is when it is important for the Speaker to assert authority and responsibility."

Miss Boothroyd, who has served eight years in the post, urged MPs to work earlier hours so that the Government had fewer opportunities to undermine Parliament by announcing important policy statements elsewhere.

"The way it would be stopped is by getting greater respect for the House by Government departments and by ministers," she said. "If we started earlier in the morning, you have got it licked. It would cut out the opportunities to make these announcements elsewhere."

Ironically, the parting shot echoes the calls of female "modernising" backbenchers who have been most critical of her speakership. Female MPs, most of them Labour, have been frustrated by Miss Boothroyd's hostility to the introduction of more family-friendly hours.

"This House does work uncivilised hours," Miss Boothroyd said. "If it can be arranged in such a way that it starts early in the morning and finishes a bit earlier in the evening, so be it. It's a good thing.

"But this is a calling. It is not a nine-to-five job. And if a government to which you are committed needs you to be here, then that has to take priority.

"Likewise, if you are bitterly opposed to what the government is doing, you regard it as your duty to use all the mechanisms in our procedures to alter or delay passage of legislation," she said.

Miss Boothroyd, who also resigned as MP for West Bromley West after 27 years, revealed her most "scary" moment when she failed to silence Michael Mates in 1993 over the Asil Nadir case. "He made his resignation speech and I was concerned he was going to move into an area that was sub judice. I tried to prevent that taking place. What Mates said was perfectly in order, but I was a new Speaker. That was one area that I did not think I handled particularly well. That was a scary moment.

"There were occasions when there was high tension and one had to reduce the tension by a few throwaway lines." she said. "I have woken up many mornings in a working week and said, 'What is going to hit me today?' Because the job is so volatile, so changeable, versatile, anything can happen at the last moment."

After Mrs Boothroyd's resignation, Sir Edward Heath, the most senior backbencher, is in charge as father of the House until the new Speaker is elected. There are 13 contenders for the £114,543-a-year job that comes with a grace and favour apartment overlooking the Thames. The front-runner on the Opposition benches is Sir George Young, a mildmannered bicycling baronet who has cross-party support for his modernising agenda.

Some Labour backbenchers favour Michael Martin, who has been painted as the "working-class candidate".

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