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25 May 2013

The Speaker

Tag(s): People, Politics & Economics
The University of Bedfordshire where I am a member of Court and an Honorary Fellow has a new Vice-Chancellor. Bill Gammell is a former Labour Minister of State for Higher Education and makes it clear that he brings his political agenda with him. I first met Bill two years ago at the British Council Going Global Conference on Higher Education in Hong Kong. He has made a good start and one of his innovations has been to inaugurate a series of Public Policy Lectures. He asserts that these are a norm for universities in the US and he’s quite right. Bill is passionate about the transformational potential that universities have not only to change individual students’ lives, but also to deliver fundamental societal impact. He believes that universities have the capacity to drive forward big ideas. He wants to combine the creativity nurtured on campus with challenge and perspective from outside. He thinks that by opening up the University’s lecture halls to high-profile public intellectuals, policy-makers and global experts, they will open minds to debate and discussion of those big ideas.  I missed the first which was given by the Rt Hon David Blunkett but I was fortunate to attend the second given recently by the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons.

John Bercow was born in Middlesex in January 1963. He graduated from the University of Essex with a first class honours degree in Government in 1985. He was a member of the Conservative Party from 1980 and was elected MP for Buckingham in 1997. In accordance with convention he rescinded his party membership in 2009 on becoming the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons. In 2005, he was awarded The House magazine award for Backbencher of the year and in the same year was named by Channel 4 and The Hansard Society as opposition Politician of the year. In 2006, John was named the Charity Health Champion and in 2007 Charity International Champion and Charity Disability Champion. In 2012, John was named Politician of the Year by the Political Studies Association.

Everyone thinks they know the Speaker because we hear him frequently on broadcasts from Parliament with his “Order, order!” or his “The Ayes have it, the Ayes have it”. But we seldom have the chance to hear him speak on Parliament and its reform. In fact the House of Commons has witnessed a huge wave of reform since 2009. The Speaker deftly took us through this and set out his thoughts on a radical agenda.

John seeks the House of Commons taking a more central place in public debate.  He gives three reasons why this is happening.  Firstly the knock on effect of the expenses scandal uncovered by the Daily Telegraph four years ago has been reputational carnage. This has led to a system of independent oversight giving a small band of reformers more opportunity to be heard. They are taking control of their own affairs. Things had become too ceremonial and the House had to adapt or die. The package of reforms being implemented has been the most dramatic since the introduction of select committees in 1979, indeed possibly since the Parliament Act of 1911. (See my Blog The House of Lords 7th July, 2012. tag Politics & Economics). John thinks it better to have an unnoticed revolution such as this.

Second, in the 2010 General Election as many as 227 new MPs were elected with many of high calibre eager to make a difference. The last time there had been such a change was in the 1997 New Labour landslide when 242 new MPs were elected, mostly Labour.  In comparison the Class of 2010 is a little older, more diverse and determined to be much more than lobby fodder. And third, there is the novelty of coalition government, a rarity in peace time and indeed the last peacetime coalition governments of 1931-40 had elements of all three major parties. Previous coalitions were between one major party and a wing of another as with Lloyd George’s administration in 1918-22. In some ways the current coalition has made instant innovations, in others it has given the impression of ‘making it up as it goes along.’ The result is that noone is happy with the 2010 Election result and therefore there is an incentive for back benchers to make a name for themselves through the forensic inquisition of ministers giving the appearance of a ‘Westminster Spring.’

The consequences are:
  • More time is being spent by ministers in the house. There has been a revival of the 'Urgent Question’, a private member’s question which if he, the Speaker approves, must be answered by the minister responsible at the despatch box within two hours. Before his time only two such questions had been put. Since June 2009 138 Urgent Questions have been permitted. Thus the House of Commons is frequently seen to be debating an issue of topical concern and the media are obliged to report this.
  • The Select Committees have been democratised. Their membership used to be controlled by the Whips’ Offices, especially the position of the Chair. This had created the anomaly that the scrutiny of ministers would be handled by Committee members handpicked by the executive, not the legislature. Chairs are now elected by secret ballot. The winners are best seen as their own men or women. There is more independence of spirit as evidenced by the aggressive questioning by the Public Accounts Committee of senior executives of Amazon, Google and Starbucks and their tax advisers on their avoidance of UK tax or the dramatic scenes when the Murdochs appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
  • The Whips have also relinquished some of their control over the Parliamentary time table. There is now much more of a chance for backbenchers to influence this. For example the recent furore over the European Union has been partly about the question of whether Parliament should have a chance to debate this issue. Then there has been the parliamentary commission on banking standards. This has representation from both Houses, ten members from each. When it was formed the Bishop of Durham with experience of industry was one of the representatives of the House of Lords. He has since been installed as the Archbishop of Canterbury and continued to express strong views on the banks.  The commission’s conclusions on the mismanagement of HBOS were biting calling it a ‘colossal case of failure.’
Such work involves considerable time commitment but Parliament can now grapple with complex issues. The House of Commons no longer has to rely on Government to initiate. There is a Backbench Business Committee which is showing imagination in how it approaches its task.

The Speaker has introduced a spirit of greater openness, transparency and accessibility. He has recognised there is a role for social media and has allowed tweeting from both the Chamber and Committee rooms. New methods of communication have been embraced. He gives speeches such as this one all over the country in a departure from most of his predecessors. The e-petition has become a regular feature of government business and he is particularly keen to take the message to young people, working closely with the UK Youth Parliament.

In a session of lively questions he agreed that the House still let itself down with the YahBoo nature of much of the debate and regretted that the Party leaders did not seem to live up to their initial words on the subject. He said he had taken a straw poll at one speaking event and attendees had voted overwhelmingly to end this. In conversation afterwards I asked him why he had not taken such a poll at this event as the result would have been the same judging by the applause this particular set of remarks had generated and if he kept on doing it he could tell the Party leaders the effect they were having in the country at large. He took the point on board.

But other than that I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by his presentation. I guess I knew most of what he told us but I hadn’t connected all the dots up before and overall it adds up to a significant level of reform. Everyone I talked to said the same. They had come with a degree of scepticism and now had some hope that the House of Commons was genuinely being reformed.

John Bercow has a wonderfully articulate delivery and a superb sense of irony. An example of the latter was when he was quite self-deprecating about his own knowledge of social media but admitted that his wife knew much more than him! I shall watch broadcasts from Parliament in a new light.

Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved

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