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The House of Commons yesterday approved a swathe of reforms which will give far more power to backbenchers, including the election of select committee chairmen and the creation of a Business Committee to set much of the Commons' agenda – measures which are long overdue.
But one other measure included in the reforms proposed by the Wright Committee – so named after its chairman, Tony Wright, the Labour MP for Cannock Chase – was to replace the term "chairman" with "chair" in parliamentary parlance (except, for unclear reasons, in the case of the Chairman of Ways and Means).
I have always viewed the term "chairman" as gender neutral – as is the word Ombudsman, for example – and find it a preposterous suggestion that those words are in any way sexist. A "chair", on the other hand, is a piece of furniture.
The veteran Conservative MP, Sir Patrick Cormack, who is retiring at the general election, made a spirited defence of the existing terminology and took the opportunity to tease Harriet HarMAN in opposing the proposed change:
"If you look in the “Oxford English Dictionary”, as I am sure you regularly do, Mr. Speaker, you will see that one of the definitions of “chairman” is a person who takes the chair at a meeting. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase said in the report that the title “Chairman of Ways and Means” should be maintained. There is a degree of inconsistency in saying that we will have a Chairman of Ways and Means, regardless of the sex or gender of that person, but not a Chairman of any other Committee. It is a time-honoured custom to refer to “Madam Chairman”. Indeed, some of the women whom I have most respected, in this House and outside, have looked on such suggestions as rather silly cosmetics. The former Member, the late, lamented Gwyneth Dunwoody would have given short shrift to the proposal, as would the former Speaker, Baroness Boothroyd, who has strong views on matters of this nature, and has voiced them on an number of occasions — not in the context of the Wright report, but elsewhere.
"There really is no need to make the proposed change. I submit to the House that it is rather silly and demeaning to bother with it when we are moving on other matters that are so grave and important. After all, the Leader of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has never thought to change her name, even though she has had every opportunity to do so. She could call herself “Har” or “Harperson”, or even think up a name, such as — [Interruption] — absolutely, such as “Dromey”. However, she has not chosen to do that. Frankly, the proposed change is not necessary. As one who both passionately wants sensible reform and loves the traditions of this place, I think that there is just no need for it."
Alas the move was backed by 206 votes to 90 and whilst it was a free vote, only two Conservatives voted for the change: James Brokenshire and Maria Miller. All but eight of those opposing the move were Tory MPs, with the honourable exceptions of two Labour MPs, David Blunkett and Kate Hoey, and six Lib Dems: Sir Alan Beith, Annette Brooke, Jeremy Browne, Nick Harvey, Bob Russell and Matthew Taylor.