John Bercow: The Making of a Modern House of Commons

August 18, 2015

We are delighted to be hosting Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, for a speech on the ongoing drive to modernise the House of Commons.

In the year which marks the 750th anniversary of the death of Simon de Montfort, Mr Speaker will examine the legacy of the Magna Carta and the de Montfort Parliament, and how the House of Commons is updating its functions while remaining faithful to its historic values.

The speech will examine how changes resulting from the Wright Committee report of 2009, plus the dramatic increase in the granting of Urgent Questions (UQs) and the widening of public participation in committees, have added immediacy to the deliberations of the House.

He will also talk about how initiatives such as the Speaker’s Outreach programme, the opening of the new Education Centre, and the report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy and the ongoing drive to modernise both the employment practices of the House of Commons, are changing the way the House engages with the public.


Introduction: James Frayne, Director of Policy and Strategy, Policy Exchange

Thank you very much for coming this evening. We’re delighted tonight to be joined by the Speaker of the House of Commons, The Rt Hon John Bercow MP. He needs very little introduction so I’m going to be very brief and we’ll hear from the Speaker. First elected to Parliament in 1997, as you know he rose very rapidly through the ranks of the Conservative Party in Opposition, joining the front bench only a couple of years after being elected. He performed a number of very high profile roles over the next five years before becoming a very highly respected and influential voice on the back benches, a role for which he secured the Channel 4 and Hansard Society Award for Opposition MP of the Year in 2005. Mr Speaker took on his existing role in 2009 and I think since his arrival it’s fair to say that Parliament has been placed absolutely back at the heart of British political debate in a way that it wasn’t before. At the risk of being side-lined as government became ever more informal, Mr Speaker has really ensured that politicians prioritise public debate in Parliament. And I know this from when I was working at the Department for Education back in 2011, 2012, you were under constant fear of Mr Speaker calling an urgent question and your day being entirely ruined by having to go and explain your policies to Parliament, which I’ve gradually forgiven over time, but it was a real burden!


But in putting Parliament at the heart of public debate, he hasn’t turned back the clock in a very conventional, old-fashioned way; in fact he’s embarked on a whole programme of modernisation, designed partly to make Parliament more open and friendly to the public, but also to make it a better place to work for those that work there, not just the MPs but also things like the cleaning staff, the people that do all the stuff away from public view, if you like. And it’s this theme of modernising Parliament that Mr Speaker will be talking to us about this evening. So can I just ask us to give him a very warm welcome and we’ll get going.


John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons

Well Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for turning up and turning up in good numbers and turning up, I hope, in a spirit of forensic enquiry of which I will be the subject and possibly, depending upon the passage of events, the victim in due course, but I have to say James at the outset and you’ll appreciate that I had no advance knowledge of James’s opening remarks, that having heard myself introduced I can hardly wait to hear myself speak!


Whether you’ll feel the same way at the end, of course, is perfectly open to speculation and conjecture, but nevertheless I do very much appreciate it, and you touched immediately, laser-like, James, on the theme of modernisation to which, before very long, I shall return, and I would like to argue at the outset that even if you are a sceptic as to the state of our current Parliament or indeed the quality of the present political class, I would like to put the proposition to you, without all that much fear of contradiction, that whatever you think of us as denizens of the House, we are, on the whole, more polite towards and interested in the views of our constituents than was the case in 1714, a date you will note that I anorakishly and perhaps arbitrarily pluck from the annuls of Parliamentary history; for it was in 1714, ladies and gentlemen and devotees of Policy Exchange, that one Anthony Henley was a Member of Parliament. Now I did seek to hoodwink or beguile you into imaging that Anthony Henley was a household name in British politics in 1714. I make no such attempt for two reasons. First because it would be incorrect and therefore unethical for me to do so, and secondly because you are rather an august, perhaps even cerebral and well-read bunch and you would know that ‘twas otherwise and therefore my attempt to mislead you would be doomed to fail. Sure enough Antony Henley was not a household name in British politics in 1714 and indeed the more acerbic of his detractors, ladies and gentlemen, were wont to suggest that he was not even a household name in his own household.


But he was a Member of Parliament in 1714 and in that year, I kid you not, and this is not an apocryphal story, it’s absolutely the gospel truth, he received a letter from a group of his gentlemen constituents, urging him to vote against the budget, or as it was commonly known and the lexicon of the time, against the excise, to which, I kid you not, Anthony Henley responded in writing thus:

Gentlemen, I have received your letter about the excise and I am surprised at your insolence in writing to me at all. You know and I know that I bought this constituency –‘


You know and I know that I am determined to sell it –


And you know what you think I don’t know, that you are now looking out for another buyer, and I know what you personally don’t know, which is that I have found another constituency to buy. About what you said about the excise, may God’s curse alight upon you all and may it make your homes as open and as free to the excise officers as your wives and daughters have always been to me when I represented your rascally constituency.


Now I had to calculate, guestimate, estimate, operate by hunch, as to whether the recollection of this historical anecdote would cause grave offence, but I looked at the guest list and I judged that you were on the whole men and women of the world, people of experience and of discernment, and that you would be unlikely to be gravely offended. But in any case the lesson for the modern genre of politician is to eschew such risqué reposts, in writing or by any other means, to constituents, and that if a Parliamentary colleague feels tempted to behave in quite such a disrespectful manner he or she should at least have the good judgement to wait until his or her last Parliament before retirement before contemplating anything of the kind.

Now the real point I want to make at the outset about Policy Exchange is that this is the second occasion, James, on which I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Policy Exchange during my tenure so far as Speaker. I’m really pleased to be back here again, because you will appreciate, ladies and gentlemen, that as a Conservative back bencher I was very much aware of, and interested in, and offered moral support to, the launch of Policy Exchange. I think it has absolutely not disappointed for one moment. We need a laboratory of ideas, the opportunity for free exchange, people who are prepared and have the intellectual resources to think outside the box, and there has been some great right of centre think tanks over the decades but there was a period the market shifts back and forth and there are oscillations and fluctuations in the journey when new left-wing think tanks have been created and energised and there has perhaps been a bit of a sense of stasis on the right, and I think that that really was the genesis of the foundation of Policy Exchange, very properly for people of the centre right, ladies and gentlemen, they believed that there was a gap in the market and that that gap needed to be plugged, and very specifically, I think it’s fair to say, whilst holding no precise corporate view and welcoming and encouraging debate on all sorts of different subjects, Policy Exchange broadly starts from the standpoint that intellectually the centre right has a powerful case to make, that the superiority of markets is well established, but that the Conservative Party, as their most longstanding and trusted vehicle, has needed to adjust somewhat its message and in particular greatly to take account of a changed electorate and of successive electoral defeats.

Now these days I take no position whatsoever on which party wins a general election, but I do think it’s incredibly important that we have got strong parties of government and of opposition, and when PX started its work the Conservative Party was in pretty dire straits and it needed an intellectual, a moral and a political renaissance, and for the role that Policy Exchange has played in the revitalisation of Conservative thought, and dare I say it, the injection of Conservative self-confidence, they deserve huge credit. I think we often say thank you too rarely and probably ought to say thank you more often, so I say as a non-partisan bystander, thank you to Policy Exchange as I would say to a robust and therapeutic pressure group of the centre left, thank you to them for enlivening the debate and encouraging people to think about important political issues.

It may be that tonight’s theme, the making of a modern House of Commons, is not as intellectually taxing, or from your vantage point as exciting or politically intoxicating as all sorts of other themes that could be chosen, but it does seem to me that the state of our parliament, though it can be a dry issue, is an incredibly important topic for reflection, debate and proposed charted ways forward. And I want to start by saying that I am talking about the making of a modern House of Commons and I use that word making advisedly, ladies and gentlemen, without wanting to be in any sense pernickety, because I don’t contend for one moment that such an institution has been made. In fact I’m not sure, James, that there could ever really be a finished product. The work is necessarily work in progress and there will again be periods of advance, possibly periods of retrenchment, or if not of retrenchment of challenge to that advance, depending upon the opinion of people at the time and potentially extraneous factors which can influence parliament’s capacity to chart its own course. But I do think it’s fair to say, and this really is a reflection of what James said at the outset, that by comparison with the situation in which we found ourselves or perhaps I should more accurately say, to which we had consigned ourselves six years ago, parliament is in a relatively good position. Six years ago the whole political class was completely despised and more particularly I think it would be very hard to contend that parliament was operating particularly effectively. We had suffered at least a four, if not closer to six, decade phenomenon whereby the power of government had increased and was continuing to increase and needed to be reduced; of which the corollary was that the power of parliament had decreased, was continuing to decrease and needed to be increased. Today, as I will argue in the course of this presentation, the situation is somewhat better than that.

That said if you’re a real sceptic of you want to take me back to first principles, you’re just one of those cussed characters who doesn’t want even to accept the opening premise of a presentation and it’s perfectly your prerogative not to do so, you might sit there and say, ‘Wait a minute, John’s immediately launching into telling us about steps to make a modern parliament but why do we want a modern parliament; why do we need a modern parliament; why is modern necessarily better?’ After all we can glory in the great history of the Houses of Parliament, in the world renowned and still admired and loved architecture, and the sense that, by comparison with a lot of parliaments around the world, we do quite well and even when we weren’t doing that well we were still doing rather better than a lot of other parliaments, so why modern? And I think I would argue that there are really three reasons why it is necessary to move to a more modern parliament which is updated in its mindset and its mechanisms and its methods. And those three reasons are as follows.

First of all, irrespective of who is in government at any particular time I think it is an observable phenomenon of probably the last hundred years that the state has become probably bigger but certainly more multi-faceted. The state has had an ever increasing accretion of power and responsibility and range to itself. This isn’t about Conservative versus Labour, this isn’t about a particular piece of deregulation versus a particular piece of regulation or re-regulation; this is a concept of the state as part of modern society, rightly or wrongly, taking upon itself a vastly greater range of responsibilities, interesting itself in all sorts of matters with which it was not in previous decades or centuries concerned. So you’ve got a much bigger state, you’ve got an army of officials in its support, perfectly properly, you have therefore the capacity of the engine of the state and of the government of the day, very substantially, for better or for worse, and subject, of course, to other, including transnational, forces to dictate the agenda. If parliament continued to operate in the era of parchment, when the modern state is hi-tech, much bigger, much more powerful, much more expensive, it would be very difficult for parliamentary scrutiny in any way, shape or form, to pass muster. And that’s why at the very least we need to ask ourselves how can we do better, how can we operate more quickly, how can we be faster off the mark, how can we be more searching and penetrating or continuous or remorseless or all of those things in our enquiries.

A second factor, I think, is that the electorate has got much bigger and, very properly, much more demanding. If you think back to the era of Disraeli and of Gladstone and of Salisbury it was all so very different. There was no general expectation that those people would have a home in their constituency, and even if they did the notion that they would be expected to spend any significant amount of time there would have been regarded as not just unexpected but rampantly eccentric. The notion of large-scale constituency correspondence hadn’t been invented. I think, if I remember correctly, in Andrew Roberts’ biography, a rather celebrated, and deservedly so, biography of Salisbury, Salisbury on one occasion wrote to his brother Eustace when on holiday in a hotel in France, to lament his, Salisbury’s, grave misfortune and indignity on encountering in the hotel constituents who thought it proper to come up to him and to engage in conversation. He thought this deeply improper and frankly rather vulgar. Now that was the era, and he put, albeit in a letter to his brother, his lament in writing in pretty outraged terms. The electorate is just different today. It is more demanding, it is bigger, it expects a bigger say in things and a more interactive exchange with its members of parliament.

And then thirdly there is a very assertive, very remorseless, very insistent 24-hour media, and I mention the media not in a critical sense, although of course I do have scope for doing so if one wanted to do so, but I’m not mentioning the media in any pejorative sense. I’m mentioning the media, ladies and gentlemen, in the context of competition, and what I mean by that is that although Parliament is the cockpit of the nation and the central institution of a modern parliamentary democracy in formal terms, in practical terms it doesn’t have that guaranteed status. It has that status only if it can win that status and retain that status, or if it loses that status, reclaim that status, in a competitive market environment in which a key contender for influence and sway would be, amongst other organisations, the media. So if Parliament is to remain relevant and to be effective and to enjoy high regard and to have the prospect and reality of continued advance in its core functions, it’s got to do those things well, knowing that very often it will competing, in terms of holding the government of the day to account and shaping events with powerful institutions like the modern electronic, and in some respects more diverse, media.

So for reasons of size and scope of state, nature, size and demanding character, properly so, of the electorate, and the make-up of the modern media, frankly I think we do have to up our game in Parliament.

Now, if you’re with me so far and you accept that general proposition or the premise from which my remarks start, I would say there are then a series of propositions which are pretty fundamental to a dynamic, invigorated and revitalised House of Commons.

My first fundamental principle is topicality. It is incredibly important that the House of Commons is debating what the country is debating at the time that the time that the country is debating it. Now a number of years ago, not all that many years ago ladies and gentlemen, ‘twas not so. You had a ridiculous situation in which, because of the rules on the tabling of parliamentary questions for oral answer, which had to be done two weeks before, you could have an elephant in the room of an issue on the political agenda but it couldn’t be raised at Question Time other than with the most extraordinary ingenuity, because there was no tabled, substantive question on that matter on the paper that day. And either alternative mechanisms for airing the issue didn’t exist, or, if I may politely say so, under successive governments the House of Commons had been so utterly denuded of any self-confidence, esprit de corps or belief in itself, that it didn’t bother to stumble upon those alternative mechanisms.

I remember one day, whatever your view about the issue, when the subject of General Pinochet was in the news, and it was a huge issue for left and right, and it was Foreign Office questions that day, and there was absolutely no question at all that would admit of a supplementary on the subject of General Pinochet, and you might say, if you’re a follower of Question Time, ‘Ah, but John, if it couldn’t be raised in the substantive section, what about the 15-minutes’ if you’re familiar with the operations of Parliament, you’re from a public affairs company or whatever, ‘of topical questions that take place each day?’ Bad luck! Nice thought. Why not possible at that time? Answer: Topical questions as a dedicated session at Question Time did not exist. Everything had to be tabled, substantively, two weeks beforehand. So I would argue that topicality is incredibly important, and, without wanting to belabour you or to labour the point, I think I can fairly argue that my main contribution to that attempted increase in topicality has been the resurrection from the deep freeze, or dare I say it even the mortuary, of the mechanism of the urgent question.

The urgent question existed as a feature of our standing orders for a very long time, but in the year before I became Speaker only two urgent questions were granted by the Speaker of the House. Now my predecessor had his own motivation for his approach, and I don’t wish, in any sense, to knock Michael, he had a view that just because things were out there in the media, that shouldn’t shape what took place in Parliament, and that’s not a dishonourable view at all. It’s just that my view is rather different. My view is that if everybody else is discussing an issue which seems to be of great importance and piquancy, and we are not, it completely reinforces the idea that we’re a class apart, totally out of touch and either know nothing or care less about what the public are discussing. So granting urgent questions, giving somebody, either a front bencher in opposition or a back bencher from opposition or government side, the chance to question a minister does not mean the Speaker saying the government is wrong. It sometimes carries an unstated message that I think the government is wrong not to have offered a statement, an oral statement to the house, but it absolutely doesn’t mean the Speaker taking a view on the merits or demerits of the policy of the government. What it does mean is that the Speaker, by granting that urgent question, which I’ve done 227 times since June 22nd 2009, I’m saying this is a matter that warrants the attention of the House of Commons today, and the minister, whatever else he or she is doing, must toddle along to the Chamber and answer the urgent question, and then a a series of follow-ups of 25, 30, 35, 40, 45 minutes.

I note what James says, I’ve always imagined, this is no great surprise, that I was probably a veritable dartboard in the offices of the Diary Secretaries to ministers across Whitehall, and that thought, or indeed knowledge, has never troubled me one jot.


Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t say it, I really don’t say it arrogantly or to be hubristic, I mean it in a factual sense, and I hope you’ll take it in that spirit: the convenience of ministers is no proper concern of the Speaker. The Speaker’s responsibility is to try to do the right thing for better or for worse, but according to his or her own lights for the House, and that is what I’ve attempted to do. So what we’re looking at here is timeliness, relevance, and the effect of the device being used, the consequential character of parliamentary exchange, so that’s the importance of topicality, no doubt we could do more but I don’t think there will be a move back in the future against the institution of the urgent question. And if I may say so, I think that the best ministers are very well able to cope with the UQ, and if, in order to avoid misunderstanding, I can quote from one side and the other, I would say in the last Labour government Jack Straw never complained, never cavilled at it, never seemed to feel any sense of discomfort at the idea of a granted UQ, because a) he thought he could cope and b) his sense of his responsibility to the House of Commons; and similarly, if I may say so, and there are no doubt many other examples, Michael Gove is a comparable example of the genre. Michael is absolutely capable of coping, he’s never protested if a UQ has been granted by me. He’s just come to the House and made his case. So that topicality is very important.

The second principle that’s very important is institutional flexibility. It isn’t enough to think purely in terms of the Chamber, but of the diverse means by which we can debate and hold the Executive Branch of the political system to account, and in that context I think I would mention two things. First, the demonstrable resurgence and assertiveness, to good effect, of the select committees over the last five years … if I may say so, a phenomenon not unrelated the fact that instead of being appointed by the executive branch which they are there to scrutinise, they are elected by secret ballot of the whole House and their members, the Chairs are elected by secret ballot of the whole house and their members are elected by the party caucus. Now it does seem, to me, that the increased dynamism of the select committees on the one hand, and the fact that they’re elected and have that democratic legitimacy on the other, are not unrelated. They’ve become more assertive and more insistent and more ambitious and more penetrating because they’ve got their own mandate, and that’s true across the piece from the fantastic work of the Treasury Select Committee under the brilliant chairmanship of Andrew Tyrie on the one hand, to the work in the last parliament of the Public Accounts Committee under the auspices and leadership of Margret Hodge on the other, and there are many other examples. John Whittingdale’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, I know John is now the Secretary of State but that committee did fantastic work on phone hacking and so many other subjects. So examples abound and I think that that institutional flexibility, the use of mechanisms other than purely the Chamber, and emboldened arm of the legislature in the form of democratised and re-energised select committees, has been big.

In addition, the creation of the Back Bench Business Committee, superbly chaired in the last Parliament by my colleague now in the Chair, the Deputy Speaker, Natascha Engel, has made a big difference. The Back Bench Business Committee has chosen debates 35 days a year, notably on subjects that the government of the day and very often the opposition front bench would not have chosen, and would actively have preferred not to be chosen. Now there are many examples of great such debates. There was a hugely significant debate, of an essentially consensual character, on the Hillsborough disaster, but the reason why I mention it is not that it was consensual, or a highly charged, emotive debate, though both of those things are true, but that that debate led to  events by way of review of what happened 25 years ago, that has made a real difference to the state of policy and public opinion about policy. Probably an even better example is the debate that took place under the auspices of the Back Bench Business Committee on the merits of otherwise of a referendum on British membership of the European Union. That debate, which caused a Conservative back bench revolt by I think 81 Tory MPs, was hugely significant because although the rebels lost the vote and the government won it, the government felt, if you like, so shaken and influenced by the debate, as subsequently to change policy on the issue of the referendum itself. So going back to that question of is something not just timely and relevant but is it consequential, has it made a difference, was there an output as well as simply an input? The answer is that there was in those cases. So that’s institutional relevance.

Public engagement is the third principle that I would emphasise to you, in terms both of activity that would best, if inelegantly, be described as in-reach, and activity that would best, if ineloquently be described as outreach. Look, for years under successive Speakers and leaders of the House of Commons, the House of Commons has welcomed large numbers of visitors. Though I did think it important that the introduction of the Schools Subsidy enabled much larger numbers of kids to come to visit our parliament from State Schools, including from schools far afield from Westminster, who would not otherwise have done so, I thought it important to welcome the UK Youth Parliament to the House of Commons to debate its issues on a non-sitting Friday once a year, something that I very much doubt would now be reversed. At the time that it happened a member of the House who was strongly opposed to the UK Youth Parliament coming came up to me and said, ‘Mr Speaker, is it true, as I have heard, that you propose to chair this pestilential nuisance of a series of debates under the auspices of the UK Youth Parliament?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s entirely correct, I do intend to do …’ ‘Let me tell you, Mr Speaker, sir,’ he said, ‘It will be a complete and unmitigated disaster!’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m afraid I don’t accept that view at all, but what’s the rational for your view?’ ‘I know what I’m talking about!’ he said. ‘I’ve been here, if I may say so sir, a very great deal longer than you have.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I know exactly when you were elected for your Northwest of England constituency in a by-election some 38 years ago.’


‘The issue is, what is your argument?’ And he said to me, a very, very experienced and dedicated parliamentarian, ‘You mark my words Mr Speaker, if those young people come to the Chamber …’ And I said, ‘Well, we’ve already voted that they should.’ ‘If they come to the Chamber to debate their issues, sanctified by you as Speaker sitting in the chair, at the very least chewing gum will be left all over the Chamber …’


‘And at the worst’ he said, ‘you mark my words, pen knives will be used and damage will be inflicted upon these benches which I love!’


And I said I thought that was a calumny of the young people and I said, ‘I predict you they will be proud to come, they’ll speak well and they will behave vastly better than we do.’ And in general terms, ladies and gentlemen, I know it’s unpopular to say that I was right, a sort of clever clogs outlook rarely wins support, but in this context I say I was right, not on my behalf but on behalf of the members of the Youth Parliament, who came and fulfilled their brief so magnificently. So that’s really the in-reach.

The outreach side is we have an outreach service that goes all over the country, that stages workshops on bills, which explains the scrutiny process, which advises civil society organisations how they can lobby. We get into approximately 29,000 schools through various online devices we use including the playing of a game about the work of parliamentarians, the better to try to convey to school children what it is we do. We have an education centre now established which is a high-tech, state of the art, cutting edge, digital, interactive facility that will allow more than a doubling of the number of young people who can come to parliament to learn about the arduous journey to the rights and representation which we all enjoy today. Now there were plans for this education centre in the budget of the House over a period of many years, but absolutely nothing happened, and I was determined that we should make progress, and I’m delighted to say that I did enjoy the support of the House of Commons Commission of a cross-party character on this matter. The House of Lords were not keen, at the time, to proceed, principally because the building was to be located in Victoria Tower Gardens, immediately adjacent to the House of Lords. You will remember David Cameron at one time decrying those opposed to all development as ‘banana’, build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone. Now far be it from me, in any sense, to malign the fine motives of my dear colleagues in the House of Lords and to suggest that that’s why they were against the education centre, but they certainly seemed rather unenthusiastic about having it there.

By contrast, the Commission and I were enthusiastic, culminating in Robert Rogers, the Clerk of the House at the time, very properly saying to me, ‘Well Mr Speaker, the position seems clear. The Commission support you, the House of Lords is rather resistant. You have a choice.’ He said, ‘Do you wish to proceed? As Accounting Officer of the House I’m perfectly happy to sign it off. It’s a very proper project with which to proceed if you wish. Or alternatively, do you wish to put it off and build support in the Lords over a period and to return to the issue in some time to come?’ And immediately, just instinctively, ladies and gentlemen, I thought and said to Robert, ‘No, let’s press ahead. The Lords will come round in due course, but if we put it off, we’ll be putting it off not just for five years but probably for ten or fifteen, and I genuinely do care about the opportunity for those young people to come and learn about our democratic story.’

So those are all good features of outreach.

Fourth principle is the need for parliament to embrace technology, which I’ll put very simply. If I’d been delivering this speech ten years ago, I think it’s fair to say Facebook was … there but in a very, very embryonic stage by comparison with where it is now, and if I’d talked to you about Twitter and all the other social networking sites and devices which you now take for granted, and I’d talked about smartphones, you would honestly have thought that I had taken leave of my senses. So we’re in a completely different place and I think the whole question of how Parliament presents its data, the concept of open data, the accessibility of our material, the interactiveness of the conversation that can take place during debates, between members in the House and people outside, are all issues for Parliament, and I think we’ve got to think about how we can get smart, get savvy, get active on the technological front. And there are all sorts of things underway to try to ensure that we meet the needs of the case.

And the very last principle is that the House of Commons should try to be a modern and model employer and provider of services. And the way I would like to encapsulate that is in the following points. You will possibly recall, if you’re keen attenders to Parliament, that we had something of a dispute, periodically tending to be, or to be thought to be rancorous, about the staff leadership of the House of Commons last year, and that got into the media. I was in the process, with colleagues, of trying to find a successor to Robert Rogers as Clerk of the House, and there was a debate to be had about whether the Clerk should also be the Chief Executive of the House. And my own very strong view was that it was extremely unlikely, ladies and gentlemen, that we were going to be able, in one and the same person, to combine the procedural expertise of top constitutional advisor with someone who would also be likely to be top of the class at the Harvard Business School. At the very least it was an improbable expectation, the two skillsets seem to be to be very different, and some people would say, ‘Well if the prime purpose of the institution is to be a legislature then the prime role of the Clerk must be guaranteed and underpinned’ and that is an arguable proposition. Certainly, whether it’s the prime role or not, the role of the Clerk of the House is an historic, and it continues to be an extremely important one and an invaluable service provided to members and others within the House. My view was that it’s so important that that role should be a role in and of itself, and that as a modern institution, employing 1,750 people and with thousands of others working on the parliamentary estate, and with our status as a World Heritage site and huge numbers of visitors visiting the House, the institution also needed to be managed by someone with substantial management experience, and I’m genuinely grateful that when the house set up a review of this matter, the Straw Committee, the committee on the governance of the House under the chairmanship of Jack Straw, concluded that yes, there did need to be a separation of roles, and the Committee recommended the appointment of a new Clerk of the House and also of a Director General of the House, that new appointment, James, and Policy Exchange will appreciate this, with a proper regard for the public purse that it’s always had, needing to be at the very least self-financing. Well the Director General joins us next month and will have a brief to review the management of the house and the way in which services are provided, which management he will lead and which services he will oversee, with a view to trying to get better value for money and to see whether we can not only not spend more, but whether it is possible, whilst achieving the desired ends, somewhat to economise. So that, I personally think, is a very worthwhile development, a modern management structure with a chief constitutional advisor on the one hand and a management expert on the other.

When I stood for election as Speaker in 2009, ladies and gentlemen, the House of Commons had a shooting gallery but no nursery that could be used by the children of members or indeed those of staff in the House. This, as I describe it, bullets before babies ethos struck me as a rather perverse one which could usefully be changed without delay, and I did say, in campaign … and I did campaign of course … to be Speaker, that I thought that in the modern age frankly the House of Commons ought to have a nursery for the service of which member and staff could pay, and which might do something, even if only at the margins, to improve the work/life balance. And not surprisingly therefore, having got elected, I wanted to do what it said on the tin. I always say, whether I’m any good as Speaker is not for me to say, that’s for other people to judge, but I have sought to stick to my commitments, so I set about, with colleagues, identifying a suitable location. I was initially told, by a very senior official in the House, there was absolutely no suitable site at all, and a frightfully good idea in principle but absolutely nothing can be done in practice, and I didn’t accept that, and so it was suggested that a paper would be put together with a list of sites, and I said, ‘No, no, I’ll visit the sites with you,’ which I did, and we saw about half a dozen sites and we identified what I thought was a very good site, which then immediately provoked great expressions of consternation in some quarters, on the grounds that its use for the construction of a nursery would require the demolition of a bar. I’m bound to say, ladies and gentlemen, this didn’t seem to me to be a particularly compelling objection, given that there are at least twelve other watering holes available on the Palace of Westminster Estate. So, as one of my colleagues, I think legendarily, put it at the time, ‘There are plenty of places where you can get a beer, but there’s nowhere that you can put a baby.’ So in any case, we decided to proceed with the construction of the nursery, which is now a very, very successful functioning nursery, it’s well resourced, it’s well staffed, it’s well run and it’s well used, and I find it inconceivable, frankly, that anybody would now seriously suggest that we should go back to the days when we didn’t have it. And by the by, the shooting gallery has ceased to be, though not for that reason. It is now being deployed for some other purpose. But it must surely make sense, in terms of work/life balance, and looking a little bit more like the country that we aspire to represent, that we have a workplace nursery.

About two years ago, I enquired of one of the senior officials of the house whether he could assure me that everybody who was employed by, or working as a contractor to the House was paid at least the London living wage, and after some uncertainty I was advised that that was not in fact the case, there were some staff who were paid below the London living wage. Now I appreciate I’m speaking to a right-of-centre think tank, but if memory serves me correctly, Boris as mayor, some considerable time ago, guaranteed the living wage to everybody working for the Assembly, and, in London, government, and it seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and it says something about the DNA of the House that we accept a responsibility to ensure that there is nobody paid below that level. I’m delighted to tell you, that has now happened. Everybody employed by, or contracted in other respects to work for the House is paid at least the London living wage. I then discovered that there had mushroomed, inexplicably and without any policy decision or democratic accountability, zero hours contracts in the House with more than 100 staff on them. That seemed to me to be wrong, and indefensible and in need of speedy change. Today I’m pleased to say, approximately 18 months after the discovery of that burgeoning phenomenon, no one is employed in the House of Commons on a zero hours contract against his or her will, and everybody who was has since been offered a minimum hours guarantee instead. So it seems to me that those are worthwhile changes that needed to be made.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have been extraordinarily gracious so far, but I mustn’t tempt you … or take you for granted, and patient, as I’ve explained the three reasons why I think we need a modern House of Commons, of the five fundamental principles of what a modern legislature should look like. I would conclude by referring to someone who said, not that long ago, that ‘yesterday’s modernity is today’s tradition, and today’s modernity is tomorrow’s tradition. The evolutionary process of change continues apace.’ That observation was made not by some Argentinian political philosopher or a distinguished Brazilian social theorist or some cultural interpreter; the observation was made by somebody called Senor Puerta, who, I believe I’m right in saying, is a Spanish-born chef and restauranteur, who is widely credited with converting the people of the United States to the merits of tapas. I hope I have offered you at least some, if modest, but welcome, food for thought. Notwithstanding your immense courtesy, ladies and gentlemen, the truth of the matter is that you will be mighty relieved to know that my speech is, definitely, at an end. Thank you.


James Frayne

Mr Speaker has kindly agreed to take some questions from the group. I offered to chair it and pick people out, but then realised actually he had more experience of doing this than I do!


So over to Mr Speaker, to pick your questions.

John Bercow

The gentleman here was most attentive, so let’s hear from him first! But we must have a gender balance, so perhaps I can take the lady there afterwards.

Unknown Speaker

I appreciate your remarks [46:54 IA] many years ago, in my student days of [46:57]. Three very simple points and a question.
First of all as a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of a Captain in the Yorkshire Militia that ended up chasing down Charles I and beheading him, just to say it seems that Parliament has been regaining or evolving in the process of gaining sovereignty by tooth and claw over the last ten years.

Second point is that I remember the dark days in the 1990s, about to become a PPC for the Conservative Party and then ratted on them and became an anti-corruption campaigner, [47:51 IA], but at that time there was a [47:58] against parliament using statutory instruments to bulldoze through a raft of legislation, trans-[48:07 management led] legislation, that Parliament never discussed.

So my question to you is, given that you’re on the brink of this huge question of Europe, but also an even bigger one over the Transatlantic Trading Industry Partnership, the draft treaty – where is it, where’s [48:28 IA] and where are the general public allowed to actually engage with this?

John Bercow

Well, that’s an extremely good question. I don’t know where that set of documentation is as of now, so if you –

Unknown speaker

Sorry, just to stop you there, I’m very sorry.

John Bercow

No, please.

Unknown speaker

Just to say that nobody who’s actively engaged in the negotiations is allowed to breath a word of the damn thing.

John Bercow

Well insofar as there are constraints on what can be discussed during the negotiations over a treaty, I mean that really is within the bailiwick, I guess, of the multilateral organisation or maybe a supranational organisation concerned. That isn’t something, it’s true, maybe you think it should be, that is necessarily controlled by an individual parliament. It could potentially be controlled by a whole series of parliaments if there were a common will to say up with this we will not put, we want these negotiations all to be conducted transparently and in public, but it’s certainly not something that unilaterally the British Parliament could control.

Sometimes where there are matters that relate to particular sectors involved, there may conceivably be considerations of commercial confidentiality, I don’t know, but in general terms I subscribe to I think the orthodoxy that you subscribe to or what we think should be the orthodoxy, namely that when big issues are being debated, whether it be intellectual property rights or tariff barriers or non-tariff barriers or the expansion of a market, these are matters that ought to be thrashed out, very robustly and sometimes almost with an explicit character bordering upon the rude, in the name of the debate being as vigorous as can be.

Do we have a resurgence of parliamentary power? Well I have argued that we do have a resurgence of parliamentary interest and focus. Where I think that there’s still a lot of work to be done is in relation to secondary legislation. We still have a lot of statutory instruments, a great deal of secondary legislation, with which we try to keep up, ladies and gentlemen, but it’s always an uphill struggle. You have to run quite fast to stand still, and I still think that there are ways, possibly including developing a larger cadre of people who are prepared to look at it, laser-like, virtually day to day, that we could do a better job. We are, in some cases, dealing with quite powerful sectors and if unattended to or if treated in a casual way, we’re probably not giving it our best shot. Similarly, ladies and gentlemen, for what it’s worth, and it meets your broad concern I think, you will shake your head if it doesn’t, we need to do better … these may not sound exciting but they’re incredibly important, we need to do better in terms of both pre-legislative scrutiny and also of post-legislative scrutiny.

In terms of pre-legislative scrutiny I think the case for pre-legislative scrutiny is quite well known, the case for having a bill in draft, possibly considered by a joint committee of two houses, is very well established. It reduces the scope, not the scope completely but it reduces the scope for error and poor drafting and the unintended consequence of perhaps a benign purpose.

Post-legislative scrutiny is just as important and altogether less fashionable and my theory behind this, ladies and gentlemen, is very simple and prosaic; it is that people naturally always want to move on to the new topic, which is sexy and exciting, and very rarely want to go back on old ground. But actually post-legislative scrutiny, looking at a period maybe three or five years after the passage of well-intentioned piece of legislation, at how it has worked or what hasn’t, or what has been, as I say, an unintended consequence of a noble purpose, is incredibly important if we’re to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Or if I can put it more modestly, avoid making the same number or proportion of mistakes over and over again. We’ll always make mistakes. As I said, the making of a modern House of Commons is a process, not an event. We’ll never get there. You have constantly to refine and improve, but you should at least try to reduce the obstacles and reduce the likelihood of continued and large-scale error.
Please, can I take the lady there? Thank you.

Catherine Haddon, Journalist with [53:06]

A lot of people in the country, obviously Prime Minister’s Questions is the most visible event held in Parliament each week. We saw a very different kind of Prime Minister’s Questions last week with Jeremy Corbyn, but how much work in this field do you think still needs to take place to make it something that people really feel they can take seriously?

John Bercow

I’m not sure, Catherine, in answer to your question, that a huge amount of additional work is required in terms of creative construction of the session. There is scope for it. We could make the session longer. I’m not saying we should, but we could. We could decide, as a House, not a matter for the Speaker, I mean I can have an opinion but it would be a matter for the House, that we should have a mixture of substantive questions and open questions. At the moment, ladies and gentlemen, questions to the Prime Minister are what we call open questions. A member has drawn lucky in the ballot, and his or her name is on the paper but no question is listed. That doesn’t mean the Prime Minister has no idea what’s going to be asked.


I think it’s fairly well established, although it’s not a point about David Cameron, it’s fairly well established under successive governments that the Prime Minister certainly does have a pretty good idea, in many cases, of what people on his own side are going to ask, though rather less likely to know what’s going to be asked by people on the other side. But you could say, ‘Well, if you had substantive questions as well as open, it might mean that you got very fully formed and informative answers.’ On the other hand, some people say, ‘Oh no, if the Prime Minister knows the question in advance, it just becomes stylised and it wouldn’t be very interesting.’ That is a matter for debate. Maybe Policy Exchange would like to look at this subject and take a view. Do you think there should be more substantive questions or should we keep it as it is? Should it be longer or should it be kept as it is?

Those things can all be looked at, but I don’t think there’s a huge amount of additional work to do. What I would like to argue to you if I may is that what is required, if you think, if you think that Prime Minister’s questions can usefully improve, is persistence with a changed culture. Persistence with a changed culture. Just changing for a short period isn’t going to avail us. There have been occasions before, periods would be more accurate, before, when it’s been changed, but it’s not necessarily lasted very long. Now it may be that there are people in this room who think to themselves, or who would say to me, ‘Oh, we don’t want to change it. We like the legal blood sport known as Prime Minister’s Questions, we’re perfectly content with it. Why are people talking about changing it? Let’s have the slug-fest and the abrasive exchanges between Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition and the braying and heckling and attempted shouting down and so on.’ Some people may think that’s fine. When I go round the country to University of the Third Age audiences, which tend to be pretty large, I often ask the question of them, ‘Do you think it’s OK as it is?’ I try to do it in a sort of Jonathan Dimbleby style fashion, i.e. fairly, and a proportion of people, I would say somewhere between 10 and 20% of the audience who think it’s fine as it is; most of the rest think that it should be conducted at a lower decibel level. Now it is up to the House. My only point, colleagues, is this: I’m not against Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s sometimes been said in the past, ‘Oh well, the Speaker’s unhappy about it ‘cause he hates Prime Minister’s Questions.’ That’s not true. Absolutely not true. I don’t live in fear of it, I don’t worry about it, I enjoy it and it’s my responsibility to do my best, whatever the House opts for by way of structure and culture. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, it’s just that I think that if the decibel level causes Deep Purple, which was the loudest band in the world in the 1970s, to be regarded as positively sotto voce, then we’re spray-painting our shop window, and it may well be, Catherine, that people in the Beltway, particularly journalists but not only journalists, think, ‘Oh it’s great, it’s great, it’s absolutely fine, there’s nothing wrong.’ I just ask them to consider, and this isn’t easy, ‘cause we all think that what we believe is not only right … but what most people think. It’s a very natural phenomenon, we all think that, we all think we speak for a much larger number of people, but I would just ask those who think it’s fine as it is to ask themselves what do the public as a whole think? And my feeling is that the public as a whole are unimpressed by the way in which Prime Minister’s Questions is conducted. I’ve lost count of the number of times around the world people have said to me, speakers, parliamentarians, civil society members, ‘We wish our Prime Minister had to come each week to respond to questions,’ so I’m not arguing that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of Prime Minister’s Questions, and even if I were, there’s not the slightest prospect the House will want to do that; no, I value it, I’m simply arguing that I think it could be better. And the fact is that for whatever brilliant work select committees do, or is undertaken by individual, robust back benchers, by a huge multiple what people see and hear, as your preface to your question said, of parliament, is PMQs, and if what they hear is braying, shouting, name-calling and general ad hominem attack, then I ask you whether it aids or abets the reputation of the House? And my view is that it doesn’t. So if it is to change, if the reputation of the House is to change as a result of a change in PMQs, the change will need to go on over a period of months, if not possibly even a year or two, before it really takes root, because people are doing a lot of other things, and they won’t notice in huge numbers and clock the change until it’s been done over a long period.

Please, the gentleman there.

Unknown Speaker

[59:18 IA], you spoke to us last year. My question is of an international flavour. On your travels to other parliaments round the world, have you drawn any views, observations, conclusions, perhaps lessons that the British Parliament, House of Commons in particular, can usefully learn from, for example, the United States, where the legislature is more empowered to put forward bills, and also Rwanda, which has the highest proportion of female members of parliament in the world. Thank you.

John Bercow

Thank you very much. I think on the whole I prefer the fact that we don’t have a separation of powers. In the United States there is a separation of powers, as we know. I prefer our system, and I don’t think there any incompatibility between somebody being a minister and sitting in the House, although the point I do always emphasis to people is that minters in Parliament are a very small minority. We have about 80 ministers in the House of Commons where we’ve got 650 MPs, so most MPs are not ministers, and their role is to question, to probe, to scrutinise, to challenge, to contradict, periodically to expose errors of omission or commission of the government of the day, and I think that should continue. We could possibly gain something from those legislatures in which there is a greater right of initiation for individual members. In that context I think not borrowing, if I may say so, from any one legislature, but borrowing from good principles, I myself think there is something to be said for changing the Private Members Bill procedure, and this isn’t to criticise any particular person, there are people in the House who are extremely dexterous and resourceful in the use of existing parliamentary procedure to frustrate Private Members Bills of which they disapprove, and within the rules they’re perfectly entitled to delay and delay the passage of a bill and to try to talk it out, because that is presently allowed by the rules. My own view, again, is that when people see that, although they might have a sneaking regard for the oratorical gifts of a Member of Parliament who can speak for 45 minutes about the contents of a telephone directory, just about animadvert to the bill from time to time and remain in order, something the late Eric Forth was spectacularly good at, on the whole people don’t really admire that approach. I think what people want is for a bill to be tested: does it have support or doesn’t it? So personally I would say move away from the present procedure, schedule time for Private Members Bills and say a bill will have two hours or 90 minutes or 2.5 hours or whatever, and then the will of the House will be tested and if the bill does have support it can progress and if it doesn’t, well then it dies. And I think that would be a more mature way of dealing with it.

I do respect what Rwanda has achieved in terms of gender make-up. Sometimes it is easier for a parliament starting afresh to develop good practices than it is for a very long-established parliament, forgive me, shoehorning in my sporting enthusiasm that some of you will know I’m a tennis fanatic, if I put it like this, it is actually easier to learn a good technique of a shot from scratch than it is to unlearn a bad technique. I’m not saying you can’t unlearn a bad technique, but unlearning a bad technique and having to rebuild a shot is much more difficult. And so I suppose what I’m really saying is some of the emergent democracies have made a better start in terms of gender balance and technological embrace, than we have in our parliament.

Do I personally think it matters? There may be people in this audience who don’t think it matters a damn what the gender make-up of Parliament is; I do think it matters. I don’t think you have to have complete statistical equality but I think Parliament is better for being a bit more diverse now than it was and could usefully be benefitting from being somewhat more diverse.

The lady here, please.

Unknown speaker

I think one of the greatest gifts of a democracy is the right to be able to vote, and I think this initiative on the [63:44] of parliament is absolutely [63:45 IA] future generations as well. One of the things that concerns me is what do you do when you when you’re building  a modern house to overcome voter apathy, now and in the future? And why do you think that is?

John Bercow

Sorry, what do you do to …?

Unknown Speaker

To overcome the increasing voter apathy, in terms of parliament and voting, and especially when you’re looking to build a modern house.

John Bercow

Yes, OK. Well I think in terms of voter disengagement, very broadly speaking there are two categories; I think with voters as a whole who are disengaged, this sounds very simplistic but we need both to make ourselves more accessible, so that it is easier for people to relay their view, to contact us, to hear from us, to interact with us, and it is not too much of an effort, and personally, you may not agree with this but personally I would like, subject, of course, to the integrity of the ballot, the opportunity for online voting to be there within five years. I would like it to be an option. I don’t say for one moment that people should have to vote online but I think that if it can be done securely then it should be an option, and minimising the hindrance or the obstacle is a good thing. In Estonia over a quarter of the electorate now vote online and it is perfectly doable and I personally would like to see that done.

And I would say also that we should promise less and deliver better, a rather prosaic point I know, but I just think that sometimes the extravagance of our promises and then the speed with which they fail to be met cumulatively damages public confidence in the political process, not of one party but across the piece. All of us are gravely damaged by that, so we probably ought to use less grandiose rhetoric, or at least to promise less, but deliver better.

As far as the youth electorate is concerned, I have to say I think that the technological point applies in particular spades to young voters, but I also think that with young voters more widely we probably need to think well how are we communicating generally? And the old structure and model of the evening political meeting in an inaccessible location is not the way to do it. You’re not going to build youth organisations in the major political parties if you conduct meetings in that way. You’ve probably got to find ways, through social networking sites, of building mass interest around themes and issues, and as a whole, both physically and technologically, members of parliament, as a group, both in their constituencies and more widely, have got to be out there much more. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be literally a physically, ladies and gentlemen, outgoing speaker. I remember when I stood, I said, ‘Well, you know, if you elect me I’ll try to be an ambassador for parliament’ and one of my colleagues, whom I very much like, came up to me some months in and said to me he thought I was doing a good job, and he had not voted for me, he’d voted for Sir George Young because he thought was, as he put it, a ‘bloody good egg’, and I said, ‘I entirely agree. Sir George is, as you put it, a bloody good egg.’ He said, ‘But I think you’re doing frightfully well, Mr Speaker, if I may say so, in terms of oral scrutiny and so forth, very important,’ he said, ‘but … I hope you don’t mind my saying, I don’t get this outreach, I don’t get this outreach business at all. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why you’re going off and visiting schools and so forth. It seems to me …’ And I said, ‘What’s your point? Forgive me. You say you don’t understand … what’s the point you’re making?’ And he said to me, ‘Well, I think it’s all rather beneath the dignity of the office. I don’t think the speaker should be going and visiting schools. Speaker is a very important role, chair, and of course we provide you with an apartment and … and you can go there and relax after hours with your wife and children, very important, and that’s the way it should be. This business of going out … I don’t get it. I think if people want to meet the Speaker or see what the Speaker’s doing, people should come to parliament to see the Speaker, see the House. You don’t want to be going visiting places. It’s not really a proper thing to be doing.’ So I said to him I didn’t agree. I mean I like the guy and rather respected him being so honest but I said, ‘I don’t agree with you because I think that is a very outdated view. In the modern age, you cannot just look important, dress up in fancy garb, be completely inaccessible and expect to be respected. You’ve got to be prepared to get out there and make your case.’ Now in the process you no doubt make mistakes and you don’t appeal to everybody. I’ll go to an audience and some people will agree with me, or maybe warm to me, and other people think, ‘Don’t agree with him’ or ‘I don’t like him.’ Well … if you cross the road you might get run over, but I think the House of Commons and those who represent it have got to be prepared to take some risks if we’re going to change the dynamic.

OK, we’re probably a bit short of time but I’m quite happy to take a couple more. The gentleman there and this fellow, the gentleman in the red pullover, please. And I’ll try to be a bit briefer.

Unknown Speaker

Talking about [68:57] parliaments, Sir Winston Churchill once said that we shape our buildings and then afterwards our buildings shape us. Thinking about the, I spoke to the gentleman earlier about the restoration of the powers of Westminster, how important do you think it is in terms of the modern parliament to think more radically about the future? Do you think it’s important? [69:19 IA] update the physical [69:25] of Parliament? Should that be done or should we be more radical, should we [69:28 IA].

John Bercow

In that respect, and you may think in that sense I’m a strange fusion of the modern and the traditional. I would be candid with you, I won’t sit on the fence, I am not enthusiastic about the creation of a totally new building. There I am, I suppose you would say, rather conservative. I think there are things that we can do that might greater political participation. I don’t, myself, sir, and I may be wrong, but obviously it’s in the nature of holding an opinion that you think you’re right, I don’t myself subscribe to the view that if only we got rid of this old, historic, some people think, though I don’t, antiquated building and put in its place some wonderful, new, modern construction that was designed by a fantastic architect, it would galvanise the nation and people who were disinterested in, or hostile to the political process would suddenly become interested. I don’t subscribe to that view. I’m all in favour of the embrace of technology. Personally I’m sympathetic to the idea of electronic voting in the House, but even if we did have electronic voting in the House I wouldn’t propose that we should do it by changing the construct of the Chamber. There are ways that you can vote electronically with pads and so on, without spoiling the architecture. And I’m not, myself, keen on the idea of the major spend on a new building. Point one. And point two, very simply put, and there’s a joint committee looking at this and I don’t have a vote in the end because I had my input at an earlier stage, but there’s now a joint committee chaired by the Leader of the House looking at the question of restoration and refurbishment, there are a number of options: made do and mend, pretty minimalist work, which is probably well below the pace of events and the requirement to keep up; there is sequential repair and restoration, which might involve the relocation of some parts of the house staff and possibly either the Commons using the Lords Chamber and kicking the Lords out (for a period, exerting our democratic entitlement) …


Or the establishment of a sort of pop-up Chamber in the House. And then there is the third option, which you would probably say, but I mustn’t attribute to you views you don’t hold, but you might say is the most radical, and that would be a complete decant from the House.

Let me make it clear in terms unmistakable, Ladies and Gentlemen, to that last option I am humongously opposed. I am totally opposed to a complete decamp. There are people advising us who are very keen on a complete decant and who say, ‘Oh, we’ll go out for ten years and then come back.’ Whatever you put in the contracts with the engineers and the contractors and so on, believe me, ladies and gentlemen, if we say we’re going to be out for ten years, once we’re out the doctrine of the occupied field takes over. The people occupying the place are in command, or put it another way, possession is nine points of the law, and I honestly think we would struggle to get back in 20 or 25 years. So I’m totally opposed to that. If we had to shift some people out, so be it, but the core purpose of the House, which is to represent, to debate and to legislate, can and should continue to be discharged in the Palace of Westminster.

And I’m pleased to say that there is a happy confluence of positions in this matter between the Leader of the House and me, and we hope to persuade other people of the merit of our views on this important matter.

Now I’m going to send some of you to sleep shortly, and I wish to avert that grizzly fate but if there are two more I’ll take them together. Can I take this gentleman and that young man? I beg your pardon, yes, you were next!

Unknown Speaker

Just a question on topicality. What, if any, limits do you see on that and [73:39 IA] leader of the opposition outsourcing PMQs effectively. So I’m just thinking how do you marry the two, the topicality in [73:51 IA] versus [73:55 IA]?

John Bercow

Well I think that’s got to be left to the individuals. I don’t think there was any particular limit to topicality as far as that goes, no institutional limit to topicality. As to how people go about asking their questions, whether they operate on a consultant basis – I am putting forward other people’s propositions, which they would probably also argue are their own; or whether they purely advance their own, I think that’s got to be left to them. In a sense, in a very, very polite way, you’re really, dare I say it, probably asking me do I approve of the Leader of the Opposition’s method of interrogation, and I think the safest thing on that to say is that it’s clearly new, it represents a different approach; we shall have to see how it works. I thought they were very courteous exchanges last week. I am very keen to preserve the idea that back benchers get plenty of time at PMQs, so I think that whatever the method adopted in the exchanges between the Leader of the Opposition and the PM, by about 12 minutes past 12 I want to be getting on to back benchers who’ve got important issues to raise. But otherwise I don’t see any particular limit.

Unknown speaker

If I may take your point about post-legislative scrutiny, [75:14 IA], is there not a case for some kind of requirement, whether in the form a bill or of a change to the standing orders of the House, to set a limit upon bills after which post-legislative scrutiny will be required?

John Bercow

There would be a very good argument for that. You speak with all the force and knowledge of somebody who possibly has had a career as a parliamentary draftsman; either that or you’re a cerebral academic.

Unknown speaker

I must plead guilty to the latter charge, although I’m not always sure about the cerebral.


John Bercow

Yes, the House on the whole doesn’t particularly like binding itself in that way and I’m not sure that it would bind itself to that extent, saying that almost if you will there is a sunset clause, and after that point x has to happen, but it would be one way of creating a discipline, I grant you. I’m not specifically endorsing it or rejecting it. I would just like to see more post-legislative scrutiny, and I think at the very least, let’s rev up that debate again, because I talked about how you’ve got continuously to be trying to update and adapt and improve your processes, and although I think that the UQ phenomenon can and will and should continue, there’s a lot else to be done and I think there’s a real role for think tanks to embrace some of these issues and take another look at them and think well, if we do think parliament needs to improve, what are the key targets? I think we should have a House Business Committee that controls all allocation of time for government business, but we haven’t got there yet, but the argument will have to be revved up, and I get the impression that it is about to be revved up again.
Go on, I’ll take one more. The lady there. Isabel.

Isabel ???

I just wondered what your position [77:08 IA]John Bercow

I would be in favour of giving MPs, Isabel, more say in how much time is given to individual pieces of legislation, and of course one could argue, if you wanted to be strictly literal about it, that the House does have control, in the sense that there is a programme motion and that’s put before the House and the House votes on it, and that would be a perfectly factual point that a government or a government whip could make, but I think what I would argue is that in practice all the forces are ranged on the government’s side and Parliament has very little natural and obvious scope to try to choreograph events, and I think in that context, Isabel, I would argue that if you had a House Business Committee, there would be a change. At the moment, ladies and gentlemen, we have a back bench business committee which chooses debates in non-government time, typically at least a day a week, but the rest of the parliamentary time is overwhelmingly government time, and what is allocated for debate then and the period that is allocated for that debate is determined by the usual channels, government whips and opposition which, of which, as Isabel knows, government whips are much the stronger force. And it’s done behind closed doors, and what I’m saying is that rather than being done behind closed doors through what are called the usual channels, there should be a House (capital H) Business (capital B) Committee (capital C), which perhaps would be chaired either by a deputy speaker or possibly, if it was necessary to get it through, possibly chaired by the Leader of the House if the government wants to keep its claws in to a considerable extent, but there should also be an opportunity for Opposition members to sit on that committee and some back benchers to sit on that committee, and ideally it should sit in public, though perhaps it wouldn’t in the first instance, but it should, and then a proposition as to time allocation for government business in the subsequent week and the prospective week thereafter should be put to the House, and that should be a divisible proposition. Now it’s not actually that radical, though I think it would be a welcome change, but it doesn’t happen at the moment.

And in answer to your first question, what’s my objection to a full separation of powers? Well, I think that the case would have to be made quite strongly as to why it is or how it would be that we would be better served if ministers were not directly and immediately accountable to the House. It seems to me that in an age in which we’re concerned about accountability of those in power, it is a risky enterprise to move away from a situation where, however powerful they might be, they’re Members of our Parliament and we’ve got them and they do at least have to come to the House to answer, sometimes at very short notice. If they cease to be Members of Parliament, they’re one distance removed and I think it makes it more difficult. And I would remind you of the essential three principles that we gained from Magna Carta and the foundation of the first English Parliament by the rebel baron Simon de Montfort, and those three principles are, first that all power, unless subject to strong checks and balances, will tend to be used arbitrarily, and in some cases even despotically. I’m not accusing any particular government of using its power despotically, but all governments from time to time tend to use power arbitrarily and need to be subject to strong checks and balances. Having ministers in the House and subject to the House seems to me to be a boon in that context.

Secondly, legitimacy is derived through representation, not acquired by might nor majesty. And thirdly we must be governed by a concept of the rule of law, which is not just a sense of being governed by law, but by a concept of the rule of law, and that concept, frankly, is there, not principally in order to protect those with wealth or power but principally in order to protect those without wealth or power. And I will conclude my remarks by saying to you, ladies and gentlemen, in honour of a very fine parliamentarian of the left, namely the late Tony Benn, that whether uttered in medieval Latin or in modern parlance, that basic point about the need for the accountability of power is as compelling now as it ever was, and the way Tony used to put it is like this: ‘Whenever I meet anybody with power, I always ask that person five questions. What power have you got; who gave it to you; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and how can we get rid of you?’


Enough. Thank you!


In The News

Latest Tweets

NEW REPORT: From our History Matters Project, this report identifies and puts forward a set of key overarching principles by which proposals to re-interpret our history should be assessed. By @TrevorPTweets…