As part of Parliament Week and after delivering the annual Sammy Finer Lecture at The University of Manchester, John Bercow MP writes on how he has sought to use his time in office as the Speaker of the House of Commons to bring about Parliamentary reform.
Reforming the legislature
One of the roles of the Speaker is to be a catalyst for desired and therefore necessary change, in the operation of the legislature and the functions more widely of Parliament. I stood for election in the immediate aftermath of the reputational carnage inflicted by the expenses scandal, and so I supported bringing in an external body to say what legitimate costs are for MPs to claim whilst going about their Parliamentary duties, but if anyone thinks that that’s all we need to and then we can assume all is well with the world, they’re deluded on an industrial scale.
For a long period, disillusionment of politics and politicians had set in for a plethora of reasons. The power of government within Parliament was increasing and had to be checked or reduced, while Parliament was regressing and becoming less significant under governments of both colours. It was completely ridiculous that the Deputy Speakers (of who there are three) are all appointed by the political parties’ whips. The election of Deputy Speakers came in and is now an accepted and established fact, and all chairs of Select Committees are now elected by secret ballot of the whole House. I think that there is a compelling case that now the independence, assertiveness and effectiveness of our Select Committees is related to the fact that their chairs are now democratically legitimate.
It was also completely ridiculous that all business in the House was scheduled by government and opposition whips behind closed doors; we ought to have a Backbench Business Committee to schedule non-governmental debates. For the last six years, the Backbench Business Committee has been choosing for debate subjects which the Government and often the official opposition didn’t want, but MPs did, whether it be the merits of an EU referendum or the cause of enhanced compensation for victims of contaminated blood. Some of our best debates, such as the review of the Hillsborough disaster which led to a public enquiry and the reversal of wrong and historically unjust findings about culpability for that tragedy, have been spawned by the creation of the Backbench Business Committee. It has brought about change that might not have happened otherwise.
I think in a modern Parliament, we ought to have a House Business Committee to schedule government debates as we have a Backbench Business Committee to schedule non-governmental ones, preferably meeting in public and chaired by one of the Deputy Speakers with reserved seats for minority parties and backbenchers rather than just government and opposition whips. David Cameron’s coalition government was committed to that but I think they forgot their commitment and drew back from it as a result of the shock of the impact of the Backbench Business Committee and so that change, sadly and regrettably, has not happened.
Some of the changes I’ve made weren’t popular with the whips, which doesn’t bother me at all. When I was an MP I had a relationship with my party’s whips which were based on trust and understanding; I didn’t trust them and they didn’t understand me. There is an important role for whips in a modern Parliamentary system, but after-all there’s also a very important role in a public health system for sewers but it’s important that sewers should know their place. Whips should know their place and they should not be running everything, they should have some responsibility but Parliament has a much wider responsibility for the public good.
Reforming Parliament as an employer
As well as reforming the legislative and debating function, I believe the Speaker should be a catalyst for wider reform. For example, we’re setting up a commons reference group on a gender sensitive Parliament under my chairmanship in response to Professor Sarah Child’s brilliant ‘The Good Parliament Report’ who will be an advisor to the group. The creation of this group means that these issues will not be allowed to be relegated to the back of decision-makers minds which has to be a positive.
When I stood for Speaker I was quite taken aback by the fact that we had a shooting gallery in the House of Commons, but we had no nursery which members of staff or MPs with children could pay for in the name of facilitating a better work life balance. As Tom Watson rightly said, that there is no shortage of places that you can have a beer in the House of Commons but there’s nowhere you can put a baby. I’m happy to say that the nursery is now thriving, despite much huffing and puffing from members who were unhappy with the demolition of one Parliament’s bars.
In 2013 I was told that not everyone who worked on the Parliamentary estate, employed by or contracted to work for us, was paid the London Living Wage. I said that must be changed in the name of fairness to those individuals and because of what it says about the DNA of the House of Commons as an employer, we have to set an example and I’m pleased that now everyone on the estate is now paid at least the London Living Wage. Similarly, I found the increase of zero hours contracts on the estates unacceptable as well, so we now offer everyone a minimum hours guarantee and there’s a tiny number of people who’ve said they don’t want it but virtually everyone has accepted it.
We have a problem that there are a lot of BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) staff concentrated at the lower end of the workplace, in some of the worst paid roles, but not many in the more senior positions. Changing this requires a whole shift in outlook and cultures, and so we have to take individual opportunities to broker change; I appointed the first BAME female Speaker’s Chaplain in the history of the House in 2010, Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin. There was a bit of surprise at the time and there were people who criticised but it was the right thing to do, and it’s widely accepted that she does a brilliant job and she’s hugely charismatic and widely praised. We also now have the first BAME Serjeant at Arms, Mohammed El-Hajji, and Saira Salimi as the first female and first BAME Speaker’s Counsel in the history of the House.
There’s still a lot to do and there are some areas of the House where there isn’t anything like adequate female representation or BAME representation at senior levels, but it’s better than it was. Work on that front is very important because as well as being a legislature, we are an employer and a world heritage site and therefore whether we look, sound and feel like the country we aspire to represent and the multi-racial world that we wish to be a part, is very important.
Becoming an ambassador for Parliament
In addition to chairing the chamber, to facilitating necessary reform, I have also tried to add another role to that of the Speaker since being elected and that is to be an ambassador for Parliament and an advocate of democratic politics. The days are gone where the Speaker can dress up in a fancy outfit, look important and be completely inaccessible to the outside world and expect to be respected.
At the route of my approach is a belief that if we in Parliament want to be respected particularly by young people, amongst whom there is much disengagement, then we need to respect them. We’ve also created an education centre which has meant more than a doubling of young people who can come to Parliament and learn of the journey to rights and representation which we enjoy today.
It’s perfectly possible and, in my view highly desirable, that in the name of engagement and out-reach, to bring politics to the great cities in a formal way by having debates in town halls around the country between political leaders, which was actually common in previous centuries. Why not have a debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn or between Nicola Sturgeon and the Secretary of State for Scotland around the country? I don’t think people are as turned off to politics as is suggested, they don’t like the remoteness or the formality or the combination of yobbery and public school twittishness – but I do think people are interested in ideas and they’d quite value hearing our leaders’ points of view.
In a world where politicians are known for rarely honouring their promises, I am trying to keep mine; I said that I wanted to be a reforming Speaker, and that’s what I have sought to be. You can either be a reforming Speaker or an uncontroversial Speaker; I’d rather try to do something with the office rather than just rejoice in it, and then let others judge whether what I tried to do was worth it and whether I was any good at it.
- You can watch the full Sammy Finer lecture here