Speaker backtracks on asylum comments

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Indy Politics

Michael Martin, the Speaker of the Commons, was forced to backtrack publicly yesterday after breaking parliamentary precedent to praise the Government's decision to abolish asylum vouchers.

In a highly unusual personal statement, Mr Martin insisted that his comments on Monday in support of the Government's plan to replace the vouchers had not been intended as "a political statement". MPs murmured "hear, hear" as the Speaker asked for the House's "indulgence" for his unprecedented remarks.

There had been astonishment on Monday when, at the end of the Commons statement on asylum policy given by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, Mr Martin said: "I welcome the vouchers being abolished because they take away people's dignity, and I know that from experience in my own constituency."

The former speaker Lord Weatherill had called on Mr Martin to apologise for the break with tradition. "When you assume responsibility for being in the chair, there is a total acceptance that the chair should always be totally impartial and I think it is unwise to express a personal opinion of any political kind," Lord Weatherill said.

Yesterday MPs filed into the chamber to hear Mr Martin's brief statement at the end of Foreign Office questions.

In silence, Mr Martin rose in the chair. "Following the Home Secretary's statement yesterday I made a comment from the chair, which some observers have interpreted as a political statement," he said.

"I wish to assure the House that I am wholly committed to maintaining the longstanding tradition that the Speaker stands aside from politics."

He said his remarks had stemmed from his personal experience with constituents in his Glasgow Springburn constituency, particularly in the community of Sighthill.

"Members may be aware that there was a particularly tragic murder of a young asylum-seeker in that area during the summer recess," he said. "If, contrary to my intention, my remark was subject to the interpretation that has been placed on it, I seek the indulgence of the House."

Sir Patrick Cormack, the Conservative MP for South Staffordshire, welcomed the statement. On a point of order, he told Mr Martin, who was elected Speaker last year: "Thank you very much for what you have just said. Can I express sympathy with you as a constituency member and thank you for upholding the impartiality of the chair?"

Lord Weatherill, who was the Speaker from 1983 to 1992, said last night that he thought Mr Martin had done "exactly the right thing. I think he did something that slipped out because he obviously felt very strongly about it," Lord Weatherill said. "Every Speaker has to bite his tongue and every Speaker has a very sore tongue.

"I thought that if he were to say this was a slight misjudgement and he was sorry, they [the MPs] would be very generous to him, and would cheer him – and they did." He said that the episode would not have any long-term adverse consequences for Mr Martin's position, "as long as he does not do it again.

"I cannot think in my 10 years of the number of times I could have spoken out on some constituency matter," he said. "There are ways of doing these things, but not in the chamber."