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Front benchers united in call for House reform

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 17:46

(left to right) John Bercow with the CPS's Darryl Howe and Matt Gokhool

This year’s annual lecture of the Centre for Parliamentary Studies was used as a platform for calls to change, modernise and reform the House of Commons.

Delivering the lecture in the Atlee Suite, Portcullis House, was House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, who since being elected to Parliament’s most famous Chair has become widely recognised as a reforming Speaker.

The evening was opened by Matt Gokhool, the chief executive officer of the CPS.  Mr Gokhool underlined the practical difficulties in reforming the House, which is arguably the most conservative institution in the UK.  He said: “Through our work internationally we have realised that very often reform programmes fail not because of lack of will of the political class but simply on logistics and practicalities.

“Parliamentary reform in the UK will face many challenges, one of them being that Parliamentary reform will have to compete with a whole array of reforms in other sectors-Education reform, Health reform, Electoral reform and reform of the financial sector-which are all more appealing to the media and public.  Bearing in mind that most reforms take place within the first two years of any government, the race against time is on.”

Taking over the lectern from Mr Gokhool, Speaker Bercow spoke of his intention to reform the chamber and ensure that Government is fully scrutinised.

Having campaigned on a platform for reform during his election, the main thrust of Speaker Bercow’s talk was that Prime Minister’s Questions needs to move away from being a “theatre” in which “a large number of MPs in the Chamber once a week yell and heckle in a thoroughly unbecoming manner.”  He said: “If we are serious about enhancing the standing of the House in the eyes of those whom we serve then we cannot ignore the seriously impaired impression which PMQ’s has been and is leaving on the electorate.  It is the elephant in the green room.”

Mr Bercow added: “There will be some of my colleagues who I expect, very sincerely, to disagree with me.  They argue that PMQs is splendid theatre, that it is secretly loved by those watching on television and that it is even therapeutic for parliamentarians to let their lungs loose on a weekly basis. I have to say that I find this argument utterly unconvincing. On the basis of its logic, bear-baiting and cock-fighting would still be legal activities.”

The Speaker turned to the “character” of PMQs and asked whether the amount of questions which the leader of the Opposition currently has is necessary.  He argued: “If the session is to remain 30-minutes long, the next leader of the Opposition could usefully ask whether she or she truly needed as many as six questions of the Prime Minister in order to land a blow or whether, in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, three or four would do instead.  Arguably, however, a 45-minute or even 60-minute session conducted with mutual respect would be a huge and welcome advance on the status quo.”

Reforming the House is a “manifest necessity” Mr Bercow argued, who commented that there is “an overwhelming consensus within the Government and the Opposition” to see this happen.  He said that: “The ideal result for the House in my view would be more scrutiny, more civility, less noise and less abuse masquerading as inquiry.”

Operating across the world, with a particular focus on Europe, Africa and South East Asia, the CPS is a UK-based organisation that promotes effective policy-making and good governance with the overriding objective of strengthening democracy across the globe.

The work of the CPS was praised by Speaker Bercow, who extolled its activities in promoting “a better understanding of Parliament in Whitehall and beyond.”