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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 20:01 GMT
Speaker's rebuke for Tory leader
Michael Martin, Commons Speaker
Martin: accused of bias in the past
The political independence of Commons speaker Michael Martin has once again come under the spotlight, after he issued a Commons reprimand to Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Mr Martin intervened as the Tory leader launched an attack on Labour's links with the trade unions at Wednesday's Prime Minister's Question Time.

Mr Duncan Smith accused Tony Blair of making a grovelling apology to unions for comments about anti-reform "wreckers".

He said Labour had received donations of 8m in six months from the unions, including 1.25m from unions that were - or were about to be - on strike.

The Speaker stepped in to remind the Tory leader that Mr Blair was there to answer questions as the Prime Minister not as a party leader.

Mr Duncan Smith agreed to ask his next question "in a slightly different way", before calling on Labour to cut its links with the unions.

Mr Blair said the donations had no influence on policy.

Previous criticisms

Mr Martin has faced criticism in the past for allegedly showing bias towards the Labour party.

In October, the former speaker, Lord Weatherill, said Mr Martin should apologise for voicing his own political views during a debate on asylum policy.

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 later defended his remarks, telling MPs: "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".

Lord Weatherill when he was Commons Speaker
Weatherill says Martin should apologise

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.

See also:

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