John Bercow interview: The Speaker’s mission to make sure people are heard
In a sometimes raucous House of Commons, the Speaker is attempting to give a voice to backbenchers and a clarity to legislation
Donald Macintyre writes political sketches for The Independent, having been Jerusalem correspondent since 2004, covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as travelling for the paper to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt.
Monday 17 February 2014
For a man who, with some justice, prides himself on being a serious reformer as Commons Speaker – not least in strengthening the scrutiny and accountability of the executive to MPs – John Bercow is relatively cautious about the story so far. He estimates that “we are at best about a third of the way to recovering the reputation of parliament and restoring the centrality of the legislature.”
And while he may not be an always uncontroversial figure, he is confident that most MPs share his desire they should not return “to being a collective doormat”. As he puts it: “The backbench MP should not be the bit-part actor in our political theatre but should play a leading role.”
A major step he has already taken is a fairly dramatic rise in the number of Urgent Questions he has granted to MPs – 165 – allowing backbenchers or Opposition frontbenchers to demand the presence of a minister in the House on a topic of the day. This has helped to ensure the Government has to answer for itself in the Commons at least as much as in the media.
Nor is this procedure, which Bercow says not only helps to make the Chamber “more attuned to what people are talking about in the Dog and Duck” but also makes ministers more inclined to make parliamentary statements, confined to the period of the Coalition. In his first year of office, the last of the Brown government, Bercow granted 24 UQs. The year before, his (Labour) predecessor Michael Martin allowed just two.
How much does this annoy the Government? Not that much these days, now they are used to it, he insists. He points out that he rejects “at least” as many UQs as he grants and says the only complaints he can remember in recent times were over two for Philip Hammond, which the Defence Secretary argued were not really urgent. Bercow told him politely: “With great respect I’ll be the judge of that.”
Which raises the question of his relations with elements of the Tory party, of which he was once a fairly right-wing member. A majority did not vote for him as Speaker, and some have been known to accuse him of bias against them.
“It’s not true,” he says. “I don’t have an argument with any of my parliamentary colleagues on either side of the house. I don’t have gripes or grudges or any feeling of ill will to any colleague. I don’t want to sound pious about it, but it’s not for the speaker to have friends or foes.”
Asked in this context about his recent rebuke – during a particularly boisterous PMQs – to Michael Gove, he points out that this got the attention it did because Mr Gove is Education Secretary and that much less was paid to the fact that he called Labour’s Chris Ruane in the same session “an incorrigible delinquent”.
He points out that the only MPs he has ordered to leave the house have been Labour’s Paul Flynn – for calling the Defence Secretary “a liar” –and the DUP’s Nigel Dodds for accusing Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers of “deception”.
So what about reform of PMQs itself, the subject of his letter to the main party leaders?
“I do think there’s an inverse link between decibels and decorum; screaming is not scrutiny,” he says. “So insofar as sometimes the decibel level puts Deep Purple [seen as the world’s loudest band in the 70s] in the shade… I think that when that happens we spray-paint our shop window.”
He says that he is a strong believer in the institution and has “lost count” of the number of fellow speakers abroad who have told him: “I wish we had what you have.”
But he says the excellent but less high-profile work of parliament is obscured from the public because “what tends to be seen and heard is a large number of colleagues making an enormous amount of noise”.
What could change it, he says, “would be if the party leaders were prepared to say to their MPs: ‘Cut out the orchestrated barracking. I don’t want it. I want your support and I’m delighted if when I get up I get a big cheer… but the orchestrated barracking of my opponent is not good for the House and I don’t want it to happen and I’ve asked the whips to monitor the conduct.’ If that were done,” he says, “there would be a step change within weeks.”
Is he talking about orchestration by the whips on both sides? “I have anecdotal indications that there is some encouragement,” he says. “I have had one or two colleagues coming to me and telling me they’ve had text messages [from the whips] saying ‘thanks for the wall of noise’.”
He is also keen to see much more pre-legislative scrutiny to prevent hastily conceived bills encountering a forest of amendments – often introduced by the government of the day at a late stage – and also post-legislative scrutiny, perhaps by a Select Committee. He is especially exercised by the Coalition’s failure to honour its promise of a cross-party Government business committee, to match the successful backbench business committee, which would give backbenchers a say in what is debated in Government time and for how long.
He is proud of having ensured that not only House of Commons staff are now paid the living wage but on his instruction, so too will now be employees of contractors working in the Palace of Westminster. And that he has promoted younger and female Commons clerks to learn their trade at the hallowed “Table” in the Commons chamber itself. But he remains determined to do something about the fact that, while black and minority ethnic staff work in quite low paid cleaning and catering jobs, “of 84 Senior Commons Service staff,” he says, “not one identifies as BME”.
Asked the inevitable question of the recent pictures in The Sun of his wife Sally kissing an unidentified man at a party, he indicates he doesn’t want to comment. But asked whether he regarded this an intrusion, he starts speaking, and keeps going: “I think its better for me to focus on what I do and try to do it to the best of my ability. Most people out there know that every family has its issues. All marriages are different from each other and I think that there’s something to be said for people looking after their own business and allowing us to look after ours.
“I think I’ve always resisted commenting on other people’s affairs. I accept that as a public figure people comment on me and because Sally has been in the public domain through Big Brother and so on, people comment on her. But people shouldn’t assume that they know what is right or that it is necessary for them to prescribe for others.
“We’re perfectly capable. Sally and I have known each other for a very long time and I think we’re quite capable of looking after ourselves. I’ve no plans to die tomorrow but if I were to die tomorrow I’d think I had been incredibly lucky to get the chance to be an MP, to be Speaker. I love my job, I’m lucky to have a wife and three lovely kids. Could I be characterised as a grumble or a moaner – what Mrs Thatcher used to characterise as a moaning Minnie? I am certainly not. I think I’m very lucky and enjoy life very much.”
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