Sir Alan Beith’s final speech to the House of Commons

Alan Beith

Yesterday a valedictory debate for retiring members took place in the House of Commons. Members whose service totalled several hundred years bade farewell to the Commons. Three of them were Liberal Democrats and we’ll be publishing their speeches in full. Today we have Sir Alan Beith, elected in a by-election in 1973 and who faced two defences of his seat in the first year. You can read the whole debate, with speeches from long-standing and distinguished MPs such as Gordon Brown, Joan Ruddock, Sir George Young and Elfyn Llwyd, here.

When I took my seat in the House with a slender majority of 57 after the Berwick by-election, a state of emergency was declared at the same time. I do not think the two events were connected, but they were the beginning of a sequence which involved two further elections in the next 11 months. At the end of that I still had a majority of only 73. We then went into a referendum on British membership of the European Community—wait long enough and another one comes round. The difference, however, is that in that referendum campaign I was fighting alongside Tories in favour of British membership of the EC and most of the opponents we were dealing with were in the Labour party; the world has changed politically quite a bit in that time. Some 41 and a half years after my first day here, I can say that, with those majorities, I did not expect to enjoy the privilege of representing the people of north Northumberland for so long—longer than any previous Berwick Member of Parliament.

My primary concerns in that time have been those of my constituents in the over 100 towns and villages which make up the Berwick constituency. Like many Members, I have derived real satisfaction from helping constituents who have been ill-served by the bureaucracy of state or local government, or by powerful private businesses. In political life, there are things we know we have helped to achieve, and they are the things we know would not have happened but for our own efforts. In that category I place examples like the dualling of the A1, the new high school being built in Alnwick, and the fact that the RAF has kept its crucial command and control and training facilities at RAF Boulmer in my constituency. For that, I called on the help of an invaluable parliamentary tool: the National Audit Office. It is not often realised how helpful that body is to Parliament and MPs.

The first two examples were certainly made possible by Liberal Democrat involvement in the coalition Government, achieving what previous Governments had failed to do. I am proud to have been a supporter of the coalition, and in my view becoming involved in it was the right thing for the Liberal Democrats to do, in order to provide stability for the country at a time of crisis, to take tough but necessary decisions to reduce the deficit, to temper austerity with fairness and to maintain long-term investment. Many of those things would not have been possible had we not taken that decision to take part in the coalition.

Although I spent a lot of time in the leadership and management team of my party in this House and outside it, I want to concentrate finally on one aspect of parliamentary activity which is increasingly recognised as of real benefit to our constituents, and more rewarding to MPs who want to achieve something than the sterile shouting match, to which several Members have referred, which takes place on Wednesdays at Prime Minister’s questions. Select Committee scrutiny of how well or badly the Government are doing their job has assumed vastly greater importance during this Parliament. Committees are no longer chosen by party Whips; their Chairs are elected by secret ballot—a rather sensitive subject today, but it is crucial to the authority that now attaches to the chairmanship of a Select Committee—and Committee members are voted for by a ballot within their parties. There must be no going back on this vital reform. The next Parliament should build on that reform and should not in any way weaken or undermine it. I welcome the fact that the Liaison Committee, which I chair along with the Justice Committee, has secured, with your assistance, Mr Speaker, £800,000 from the resources of the House in the next Parliament to strengthen and support the work of Select Committees.

By its nature our system allows for a strong Executive, and they must be held effectively to account. We in the Justice Committee have done that, but we have also tried to create space for a more rational, evidence-based objective debate about criminal justice policy. In the Liaison Committee, we have focused our now more frequent question sessions with the Prime Minister, probing in detail the influence that he and the No. 10 staff have on departmental policy. I pay tribute to colleagues in all parties who, despite their different political views, have worked with me in the Select Committee system.

My final word must be one of thanks: to the staff in every department of the House, to the staff in my Westminster and constituency offices, to all those volunteers who have given me so much help over the years, to my colleagues and friends in the Liberal Democrats, and to the electors of my constituency. I hope they will take my advice and return another Liberal Democrat to maintain the liberal philosophical tradition and the Liberal tradition of vigorous local representation which I have sought to uphold in this House.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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6 Comments

  • Stephen Howse 27th Mar '15 - 3:42pm

    Thank you for all the hard work and dedicated service, Sir Alan. You will be a huge loss to your constituents and to the Commons. You have been a tireless and often lone beacon of Parliamentary Liberalism in the North East, and for that I and all who have followed in your footsteps in the region owe you a huge debt of gratitude.

  • Peter Chegwyn 27th Mar '15 - 11:31pm

    I worked for Alan briefly in 1975/76 – my first professional job in the party. Very fond memories of surgeries in places like Norham with the mist rising over the Tweed and a local school-teacher bringing us homemade shortbread still warm from the oven. I still look for Berwick Rangers result every Saturday to this day.

    Alan has been a superb constituency MP and a hugely-respected MP in the Commons. He has worked tirelessly for the Liberal cause. We all owe him a huge debt of gratitude for all he has done over the past 40 years.

  • I’m sure these speeches are nice for the Hon members, but aren’t they really a bit of a waste of parliamentary time – and thereby also of taxpayers’ money?
    I wonder in what other walk of life individuals would be invited to do this ?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 28th Mar '15 - 10:36am

    John, have you never been to a retirement do at work? This was an hour of parliamentary time – a tiny token of appreciation for hundreds of years of service from all those who took part.

  • Bill le Breton 28th Mar '15 - 10:58am

    May I echo Peter’s tribute? I was up in Northumbria last week and managed to deliver a few envelopes for Julie P . I wish her a good and successful campaign.

  • I remember spontaeneously dancing to celebrate Alan Beith’s 1973 by-election victory when the result came through on the radio.

    Who would have thought it that he would go on to serve as MP for more than 41 years?

    Brilliant contribution to the Liberal cause !!

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