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The urgent need for even more reform of Britain’s Parliament

Submitted by on 10 Nov 2010 – 10:30

In an interview with Government Gazette to mark the first anniversary of his election as Speaker of the House of Commons, Mr Speaker outlined his vision for change and reform and discussed his achievements in his first 12 months as the occupant of Parliament’s most famous Chair.

John Bercow had stood and won in his election on a platform of reform. On arrival at Speaker’s House for this interview, some of those reforms were immediately apparent. Mr Speaker emerged from his study wearing a business suit – not the traditional robe of office – along with the three newly elected Deputy Speakers (Dawn Primarolo, Nigel Evans, Lindsay Hoyle), who arguably would not have been selected under the old system.

One of Speaker Bercow’s first reforms was to introduce elections – by secret ballot -for his deputies. Asked about that election process, Speaker Bercow said: “My strong view was that in the modern world, just as the Speaker is elected so, too, should the deputies. It was really a throw back to a bygone age that the deputy speaker should have been chosen by the Whips; because that is what happened.

“There have been two results stemming from the election of the deputy speakers. Firstly, they will feel a greater sense of legitimacy that they are not the choice of the Whips but are instead the choice of the House as expressed in a free vote in a secret ballot.

“Secondly, members of the House will feel that they have played an important role in the process. So from the point of view of the victors and from the point of view of the voters in Parliament, it is potentially a great positive.”

He also championed and welcomed the election by the whole House of Chairs of Select Committees and election of members by their party groups.

Mr Speaker acknowledged that reform of the Commons was not new. He explained that: “In the period of the last Government, there were reforms – the subsidiary Chamber in Westminster Hall, the establishment of the Modernisation Committee and changes to the hours of the House.” However, Speaker Bercow noted that, “some, not all, of the reforms that took place between 1997 and 2009 were more about easing the Government’s passage than about serving the interests of Parliament and the public.”

Following his election, Speaker Bercow has lived up to his reputation as a reforming Speaker. “The reform process that has got underway over the last year is bigger and more significant than anything that has taken place for a long time. We really are in a new phase of reform in terms of range and significance, which dwarfs much of what took place in the previous decade. Very specifically, we are about trying to empower backbenchers to ensure that Parliament runs the Government rather than the Government runs Parliament. And we are also about ensuring that the Speaker is more than simply someone who chairs debates and greets visitors. The Speaker should also be an external, impartial, robust and articulate advocate for Parliament.”

A radical overhaul of the system in place at the House of Commons was Speaker Bercow’s objective from the very start. “No one can underestimate the reputational carnage that was inflicted upon the House by the expenses scandal. So it was absolutely a prerequisite that in order for there to be a recovery of any basic respect for Parliament, we had to renew ourselves. And this meant first and foremost getting rid of the old system and establishing a new, independently determined system

and that is what we have done… We cannot, we must not, we dare not go back to a system run by MPs for MPs. It has to be an independent system if we are to command public support.”

Given the level of media attention that the expenses issue had attracted, it would have there is “a strong inquisitional the armed forces returning from been understandable for a Speaker appetite” amongst backbenchers Afghanistan and as well as having to have focussed their efforts solely and a widespread view in the House chaired the first-ever set of debates on this when attempting to reform that MPs should have more chance by the Youth Parliament and has the House. However, Speaker to ask questions spoken at events throughout the Bercow saw things differently. “We have to do more than just clean up the expenses system. It was always my view that we have a major job of parliamentary reform to carry out. Backbenchers should have more opportunities to contribute; the running of parliamentary business on a day-to-day basis needs to be more efficient with greater opportunities for ordinary MPs to take part. Ministers need to be scrutinised for what they have done and, indeed, for what they have not done. And in 2010 it is clearly absurd if the committees that exist to scrutinise government departments have their chairs and members handpicked by representatives of the Government.”

From the very outset, Speaker Bercow has championed the role of backbench MPs in holding the Government to account and has used the powers at his disposal to ensure they get “a fair crack of the whip”. During Question Time, he has made swift progress down the Order Paper by enforcing short focused questions and answers that allow time for more backbenchers to ask questions. The Speaker commented that during the 15 minutes of Topical Questions, “demand often far outstrips supply and where business to follow has not been particularly pressurised I have sometimes exercised some discretion and let topical run on for a few minutes to allow more backbenchers the opportunity to ask questions.”

Concerning the current five-week cycle for Departmental Questions,

Speaker Bercow contended that this is too long a period and suggested that at some point in this Parliament there will need to be changes to increase turnover. Furthermore, he favours replacing the current system of 60 minutes of questions each day: “You could reasonably have two sets of 40 minutes questions each day”. The Speaker noted that his own strong credentials in ensuring timely questioning of the Government on topical issues of the day. “I have been sympathetic to the mechanism of the Urgent Question procedure, if I think a good case has been made and the matter is urgent, I will grant the UQ application and the Minister will have to come to the House.”

During the last 12 months, he has allowed 24 UQs compared with the two urgent questions that had been allowed in the year before his election. He welcomed the introduction of Topical Debates in the last Parliament but said: “It was a pity topics were chosen by the Leader in a non-transparent way. It should now before the new Backbench Business Committee to take a view on topical issues that ought to be debated”

An advocate of greater public engagement with Parliament, the Speaker welcomes reform of the petition system as a Parliamentary instrument for doing this. He commented: “If a significant proportion of the public is pushing for a particular matter to be debated and petitions for it, that could be a legitimate trigger for a debate”. But Speaker Bercow noted that the Parliamentary Timetable cannot be determined by pressure groups. In his own outreach programme, he has staged events in Parliament for health charities, serving members of result of there now being one main opposition party in the chamber. “I do not think that it [the coalition] need weaken the capacity of the House to hold Government to account because where there is a void it is filled. Where the Liberal Democrats no longer ask questions from the front bench, there are opportunities for the unionists and the nationalists to do so on a bigger scale than there were before. I have an agreement with the unionists and the nationalists whereby they will have more regular opportunities to speak at question time, not just Prime Minister’s Question Time but also departmental questions, too. And where that does not completely absorb what the Liberals used to occupy, other opposition MPs are going to have a better chance of contributing in debates.

“Further, Liberal Democrat backbenchers are still backbenchers and they can continue to ask questions. I am always keen to ensure that the Liberals get a fair crack at the whip.”

The task of effectively reforming the House of Commons is imperative

for the sake of re-establishing public trust in the institution of Parliament.

And only a vigorous approach to this will work. Speaker Bercow is, therefore, well placed to achieve his stated objective in the interview of, in relation to existing parliamentary structures, “keeping the best, improving the rest”.

(Additional material by Darryl Howe).