“May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”
Thus, spoke William Lenthall, House of Commons Speaker, in a seventeenth century tussle with the Monarch. Incidents like this contributed to shaping the role and establishing the independence of the Speaker.
Fast forward a few hundred years to February 2017. One of Asia’s oldest parliamentary democracies, Sri Lanka, hosted a round-table with presiding officers and parliamentary officials to explore the rules, conventions and practices related to the Speaker’s role and office.
As the Sri Lanka Parliament continues to operate and reform its Westminster style parliamentary system, there is scope for greater awareness by elected representatives, political parties and officials about the Speaker’s role, function and how best practices can be adapted to the Sri Lankan context.
The Speaker’s office plays a critical role in managing the chamber in Westminster style Parliaments. Cross-party support and participation in deputising are important to maximise understanding of the presiding role and its responsibilities. In the current Sri Lanka Parliament of 225 Members, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker or Chairman of Committees are from different parties of the ruling national unity government and the Deputy Chairman of Committees is from the Opposition. In addition, there are ten Members of Parliament on the Panel of Chairs, selected from the different political parties and factions. They can and do deputise for the Speaker.
Through exchange with peers, practical examples and discussions, the inaugural February 2017 round-table aimed to build the capacity of presiding officers and senior parliamentary officials to effectively fulfil their responsibilities and respective roles. Round-table discussions explored how presiding officers should handle points of order, questions of privilege, time allocation for Members who wish to speak, unparliamentary conduct and so on. Delegates from the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka participated in the day and a half long round-table.
(Above From Left to Right: Ms Dina Melhem, WFD Regional Director, MENA and Asia; Baroness Frances D’Souza, Mr Karu Jayasuriya, Speaker of the Sri Lanka Parliament; Sir Nicholas Winterton; Mr Priyanga Hettiarachi, WFD Sri Lanka Country Representative; Mr Chamal Rajapakse, Former Speaker of the Sri Lanka Parliament)
Crispin Poyser, House of Commons Clerk, traced the history of the House of Commons Speaker. Robin Ramsay, Adviser to the Northern Ireland Assembly Speaker, outlined Westminster practices adapted to a devolved context. Baroness D’Souza, Former Lords Speaker, revealed the rarefied elements of presiding in the House of Lords. Sir Nicholas Winterton, Senior Member of the House of Commons Panel of Chairs, emphasised the virtues of impartiality and fairness in rising above the hurly burly of everyday business. Together, their insights and experiences were expertly deployed to navigate the challenges and opportunities for those presiding and supporting Speakers in the United Kingdom.
Dhammika Dasanayake, Secretary-General of the Sri Lanka Parliament, and senior parliamentary officials, expertly shared insights into the relevant rules, conventions and practices applicable to the Sri Lanka Parliament. The Speaker, Former Speaker and Members of the cross-party Panel of Chairs, who deputise for the Speaker, made valuable contributions, sought clarifications, raised issues and provided their input.
Capacity building and awareness raising involving the Speaker’s role and office remains a niche, important and innovative area for WFD programming. Learning from the round-table and follow up activities may be relevant to Parliaments elsewhere looking for ways to address similar challenges and opportunities. More broadly, the Sri Lanka Speaker “noted the importance of such exchanges for expertise sharing, knowledge gaining and relationship building, amongst MPs, officials and Parliaments.”
Work in this area has everyday relevance and impact. In March 2017, while presiding in Parliament, the Sri Lanka Speaker was confronted with circumstances where Government Members criticised him for being lenient with Opposition Members; and Opposition Members criticised him for favouring Government Members. After giving Members an opportunity to speak, issuing due cautions and warnings, and adjourning the sitting, the Speaker suspended a Member from the Parliament for one week. About this incident, the Speaker is quoted as saying:“We have regulations and traditions inherited from the British Parliament.”