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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 16:12 GMT
Speaker defends debate remark
Michael Martin, Commons Speaker
Martin voiced his own view on asylum changes
House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin has defended his comments about asylum policy amid accusations he broke his job's age-old tradition of strict impartiality.

In an attempt to defuse a potential row, Mr Martin said he sought "the indulgence" of MPs if, contrary to his intentions, the remark had been interpreted as a political statement.

The statement comes after former speaker Lord Weatherill said Mr Martin should apologise for voicing his own political views during a debate on Monday.

I am wholly committed to maintaining the long standing tradition that the speaker stands aside from politics

Michael Martin
Commons Speaker

MPs looked stunned when the speaker welcomed Home Secretary David Blunkett's decision to ditch the controversial voucher scheme for asylum seekers - a move that many commentators thought broke new ground.

The parliamentary rulebook, Erskine May, says the Speaker, whose job is to keep order amongst MPs, "takes no part in debate either in the House or in committee".

Asylum changes welcomed

Mr Martin told MPs on Tuesday: "I am wholly committed to maintaining the long standing tradition that the speaker stands aside from politics."

He explained his remark stemmed from his personal experience as MP for Glasgow Springburn, where a Kurdish asylum seeker was stabbed to death earlier this year.

His words were welcomed by senior Conservative MP Sir Patrick Cormack, who thanked him for "upholding the impartiality of the chair".

Earlier, Lord Weatherill argued the concern in his constituency did not mean the speaker was right to have intervened.

Lord Weatherill when he was Commons Speaker
Weatherill says Martin should apologise
The crossbench peer, an ex-Conservative MP, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "All speakers are human, but there is a long tradition of total impartiality of the speaker in the chair and speakers give up party politics for life, so I think it is a lapse.

"I think he would be wise to make a statement, probably today, saying that this was a temporary lapse, that he apologises and hopes that it would not be taken as a precedent for the future."

But the speaker was backed by former veteran MP Tony Benn, who told the Times newspaper the intervention was a "very, very big event", which set an important precedent.

Arguing that Mr Martin should not be criticised for speaking out, Mr Benn, said: "The idea that the speaker is God or the Queen Mother is ridiculous. He's an MP as well."

The idea that the speaker is God or the Queen Mother is ridiculous

Tony Benn

And Labour MP Tam Dalyell, the Father of the House of Commons, told BBC News Online he was "relaxed" about Mr Martin's intervention.

It is not the first time, however, that Mr Martin has flown in the face of Parliament's centuries-old traditions.

He drew criticism from Mr Dalyell and others when he began his speakership with a media conference - the first ever held by a holder of the office.

Changing trousers

And he has done away with the traditional tights worn by speakers in favour of dark flannel trousers, as well as continuing the precedent set by his predecessor, Betty Boothroyd, and dispensing with the wig.

Mr Martin also became the first tee-totaller to choose the whisky which bears the speaker's coat of arms - a task for which he enlisted the help for all-party Scotch whisky group.

And when Mr Martin has not broken with tradition himself, others have done it instead.

The Scottish National Party broke with the convention that speakers are unopposed by mainstream parties at elections by fielding a candidate against Mr Martin at the polls in Glasgow in June.

The BBC's Norman Smith
"A total of nine speakers have been executed for saying the wrong thing"
See also:

13 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Commons speaker re-elected
25 Oct 00 | Scotland
Speaker faces election challenge
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