By Georgina Bailey of The House magazine
McFall, a Labour and Co-operative MP in Dunbartonshire from 1987 to 2010, first joined the House of Lords in 2010. He has served as Senior Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords since 2016, overseeing work to restructure Lords Select Committees and to develop new procedures for hybrid working during the pandemic.
McFall has said that he wants the Lords to be a “a vibrant, outward-facing legislature that reaches out as widely as possible across all parts of the United Kingdom”.
“I am humbled to have been chosen by my colleagues to serve as the next Lord Speaker and I am honoured to be taking over the reins from Lord Fowler, who has achieved so much during his term of office,” McFall said following his election.
“As a House we face some fundamental challenges, the most immediate being how we return safely to Westminster in greater numbers once the current restrictions are relaxed, while harnessing the technical and procedural innovations that have enabled us to operate so differently over the past year.
McFall will take up the post of Lord Speaker from Saturday 1 May, and sit on the Woolsack for the first time on Tuesday 4 May. A pared-back Queen’s Speech is expected to take place in the House of Lords on Tuesday 11 May, in which the Lord Speaker traditionally has a ceremonial role.
The position of Lord Speaker was created in 2005 by the Constitutional Reform Act and the first Lord Speaker was Baroness Hayman, elected on 4 July 2006. McFall will be the fourth Lord Speaker to hold the office, following the first ever remote election due to the Covid pandemic.
Lord and Lady McFall relaxing at home. His appointment as Lord Speaker is something to smile about and celebrate.
The Lord Speaker is elected for a term of five years, renewable once, and gives up their party affiliation and voting rights upon their election.
The role of the Lord Speaker is to serve as the presiding officer of the House of Lords, to chair the House of Lords Commission, which provides high-level strategic and political direction for the House of Lords Administration on behalf of the House, and to represent and promote the House of Lords at home and abroad. However, unlike in the House of Commons, the Speaker has no power to call members to order, to decide who speaks next, or to select amendments.
Lord Alderdice, a former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town – currently deputy leader of Labour in the Lords – also ran in the election, which is carried out via the Alternative Vote system. The House of Lords currently has about 800 serving members, and is the second-largest legislative chamber in the world behind the Chinese National People’s Congress.
The outgoing Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, was a champion of reducing the size of the House of Lords to 600 as proposed in the 2017 Burns Report, which also suggested a ‘two out-one in’ system and a 15-year fixed term for new peers.
In his valedictory interview with The House in March, Fowler said he would continue to campaign for reform from the cross benches of the Lords.
“We will win that in the end. The ridiculous thing is that the people most affected were the peers themselves,” he said.
“And they supported it. And then along comes the government and says, ‘Well, we don’t really think too much of that; we will appoint a lot more.”
Fowler, previously a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government and health secretary during the Aids crisis in the 1980s, announced that he was stepping down as Lord Speaker in February to focus on campaigning on HIV/Aids.
His resignation came four months ahead of the official end of his five-year term in September, in order to coincide with appointment of a new Clerk of the Parliaments, the most senior civil servant in the Lords Administration. Simon Burton started as Clerk of the Parliaments on 2 April 2021, replacing Edward Ollard, who had held the position since April 2017.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, said of Lord McFall: “you could not find a nicer, kinder or more welcoming politician.”
“Not only was he an extremely hard-working constituency MP, he played a leading role as chairman of the Commons Treasury Select Committee in holding the banking sector to account, following the financial crash of 2008/9.
“For the past five years he has served – with distinction – as senior Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords, demonstrating a zeal for impartiality and fair mindedness. I believe this collaborative style and experience has proved he is exceptionally well qualified to take over the duties of Lord Speaker.
“Having already worked closely with John on issues such as security, I relish the chance to do so again on matters that cut across both Houses of Parliament.”
Lord McFall was educated at St Patrick’s High School in Dumbarton and began his working life as a gardener with Dumbarton Town Council before going on to Further Education, obtaining a university degree and becoming a school teacher.
His mother, Jeannie Cleary, owned a shop in College Street, Dumbarton, and his father, also John, was the janitor at Wee St Pat’s in McLean Place.
An only child, the family lived in Bellsmyre, where he met and married Lady McFall, Joan Ward, and the couple, who live in Dumbarton, have four grown up children, three boys and a girl.
Lord McFall of Alcluith was a busy man when he was MP for West Dunbartonshire.