The Rt Hon John Bercow was elected 157th Speaker of the House of Commons in 2009 and re-elected in 2010, 2015 and 2017. He has served as MP for Buckingham since 1997. As Speaker, he has been instrumental in transforming the way Parliament works. Speaker Bercow has helped to secure greater openness and transparency, championed the rights of backbenchers and ensured Parliamentary business is dealt with in a timely manner to enable as many MPs as possible to contribute. In addition, he has reinvigorated Urgent Questions, readily granting many more so that Parliament is able to discuss the pressing issues of the day. He was also the first Speaker to allow the UK Youth Parliament to debate in the House of Commons Chamber.
The Rt Hon John Bercow
As part of his commitment to making Parliament more accessible, Speaker Bercow has embarked on an extensive outreach programme, travelling across the country to visit schools, universities and community groups to talk about his role and that of Parliament. In November, he will visit the University to speak to students on the Parliamentary Studies module, convened by Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics and Parliamentary Academic Fellow. He will also deliver a talk, ‘The making of a modern Parliament,’ as part of the University’s Public Lecture series.
Ahead of his visit, Dr Bennister and Inspire Editor, Michelle Gallagher, met with the Speaker at the Speaker’s House in the Palace of Westminster to discuss the Speakership, the modernisation of Parliament, recent reforms and the potential state visit of President Trump.
What drew you to politics?
I grew up in north London during the Winter of Discontent, when streets were unswept, the sick were left untreated and the dead unburied as a wave of strikes spread across the country. I thought the Labour Government was extremely ineffective and practically ceased to govern, negatively influenced by the almost baronial power of the trade unions. Most of my secondary school teachers were either supporters of the James Callaghan Government or left-wing critics of it – there was hardly a Conservative among them as far as I could tell. I rebelled slightly against the majority view of my teachers but, if I’m honest, my father was a Conservative businessman, so I think I was influenced by him.
"During the 1979 election campaign, I was very much inspired by Margaret Thatcher…"
During the 1979 election campaign, I was very much inspired by Margaret Thatcher, whom I met when she came to give a talk at a neighbouring school, and I think she was a great leader in many ways. I certainly parted company with her on all sorts of things. She made big errors and there are gaps in her record of achievement: the problems spawned during her tenure of the Conservative party in later years and the perception of being uncaring and indifferent to urban decay and rising inequality. However, I did admire her as a very decisive leader, and she was certainly someone who inspired strong reactions. As a young person at a time when the country seemed to be rather poorly governed, I was impressed by her.
So I began to think more about politics and started reading more – from both left-wing and right-wing writers. From around the age of 16, I decided that I was Conservative minded and that one day, having done other things, I’d like to go into Parliament.
How do you feel the role of Speaker has changed since you began your tenure in 2009? What achievements are you most proud of?
There is a mixture of things in the Chamber and beyond that have made a difference. Some very worthwhile reforms include the election of chairs and members of select committees, elected deputy speakers and the creation of the Backbencher Business Committee, whereby backbenchers can control the business one day a week. However, having a greater topicality and urgency in Parliament is of great benefit to both Parliament and the public. Therefore, the almost exponential growth in the number of Urgent Questions I have granted has been the single largest change during my tenure as Speaker compared to my recent predecessors.
The Urgent Question wasn’t invented by me. It forms part of our standing orders and allows members to apply to the Speaker for the right to put an Urgent Question to a minister, but it had fallen into desuetude over the years. My view is that if an issue is being discussed in the pubs and clubs, in workplaces and at social gatherings by large numbers of people, but is not being discussed in Parliament, it makes Parliament look rather irrelevant. We’ve had nearly 400 Urgent Questions over the eight years I’ve been Speaker and now that members are aware that there is a good chance of having an Urgent Question application granted, there tends to be more applications.
The growth in the number of Urgent Questions was very much my initiative and I think it has made a real difference. Parliament has become more lively, dynamic and unpredictable, and ministers are forced to be accountable. They often have to abandon what they are doing at short notice to explain their policy, expenditure or administration in relation to a particular issue and this has made backbenchers realise that it is actually worth coming into the Chamber. There was a period when people stopped coming because they didn’t think they would be able to raise topical issues. Now members know that they only have to do an interview for the radio or TV and they can apply for an Urgent Question. It’s been a magnet for the Chamber.
"…the almost exponential growth in the number of Urgent Questions I have granted has been the single largest change during my tenure as Speaker compared to my recent predecessors."
What further Parliamentary reforms would you like to see implemented in the future?
I think there is a combination of things that we need to do. My personal view is there should be a House Business Committee, which decides the choice of subject and allocation of time for debate on all Government bills and policy proposals. I do think the Government should be able to allocate time for its business. However, it would be far better if we had a House Business Committee, which includes opposition members and backbench representatives, who decide the topics to be debated and the length of time allocated for each debate. This would mean the Government is sharing power to a degree – and often Government may not want to do that – but this would be a more mature way of managing a modern Parliament.
In addition, it’s important that we change the way we consider Private Members Bills. There are very skilled Parliamentarians who specialise in talking out Private Members Bills. I don’t knock their ability, but it’s not great for the reputation of Parliament and I think it could be done differently. We should have a dedicated slot for Private Members Bills each week with allocated time for debate. The House should then decide to vote them through or not.
There is also more of a concern for family-friendly policies. We preach to employers that they should have good childcare policies but we don’t have such formal policies here. Although not the biggest issue facing the House of Commons, we ought to practise what we preach. I personally think we should have a formal system of maternity and parental leave so that if a member has a child, that person takes maternity/parental leave for a specified period and can nominate someone to perhaps vote on their behalf in the House and carry out their constituency work for a period. Is it for me to decide that? No, it has to be the House that decides. However, I feel strongly that these sorts of progressive changes should be considered and debated by Parliament.
One of the other challenges facing Parliament is a physical one because of the renovations that are required to the fabric of the Palace of Westminster itself. The Restoration and Renewal Programme has garnered much attention in the media but what is your view on the importance of these alterations?
The issue of restoration and refurbishment will not go away. However, there is currently no consensus on how to handle it. In essence, there’s a major refurbishment to be done because it’s a very old building. But there are many colleagues who are very uncomfortable with the idea of decanting from here because they feel that if we leave, we won’t come back or, if we do, it won’t be for a very long time. Am I trying to drive that issue? No, but I what I am saying to Government is that we can’t just ignore it; the House must debate the issue and I think it will be debated in the coming months. Whether the House will be ready to take a final decision and agree on an approach to follow, or if it decides that more work needs to be done, remains to be seen.
"The issue of restoration and refurbishment will not go away."
What about other changes outside of the political process?
Outside of the Chamber, I’m pleased that I was able to gain support to introduce a nursery in the House, where staff can pay for their children to be looked after in order to help the work-life balance. We are about to develop a crèche facility for short-term emergencies, too.
We also opened a new education centre adjacent to the House of Lords in 2015, which is a state-of-the-art, interactive facility where hundreds of thousands of children come each year to learn about the journey to the rights and representation we enjoy today. That is something I am particularly proud of.
We welcome the UK Youth Parliament (UKYP) to Westminster every year for a sitting in the House of Commons and I preside over the debates. In addition, we use the state rooms for charitable functions and events, such as lectures, and I carry out an enormous amount of outreach work, visiting schools, universities and organisations.
In summary, it has been a combination of bringing greater vitality to the Chamber itself and increasing the number of activities the Speaker can engage with outside the Chamber to broker progressive change in the running of the House and to raise awareness about Parliament.
One of the most taxing parts of your role as Speaker of the House of Commons is the management of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). You’ve written in the past about reforming PMQs. What changes would you recommend?
This is not an area where I’ve had great success I have to admit. At one time, I hoped it would be possible to get agreement to a slightly less high-decibel series of exchanges, but that has never really happened. People begin with the intention of a more rational discussion, a more intelligent and jargon- and hysteria-free set of exchanges, but then the idea gets lost. David Cameron talked about ending 'Punch and Judy' politics and, similarly, when Ed Miliband became leader of the opposition, he talked about wanting a rational discourse. However, the whips on both sides like the existence of a wall of noise behind their leader when they rise to speak.
I am, of course, in favour of PMQs, I think it’s a great arrangement. However, this is the feature of Parliament, more than any other, that is viewed widely by members of the public and, on the whole, this enormous wall of noise is not very good for the reputation of the House.
Culturally, for there to be a change, the party leaders have to will it. It may sound like I’m passing the buck but my power is to deal with individual abuses; if a particular member says something unparliamentary, I can cut that individual off. If somebody screams abuse, I can rebuke them and deal with the situation. We could make the session longer and we could divide it between a mixture of open questions and perhaps substantive questions whereby you might get a fuller and better reply from the Prime Minister. There are different ways it could be run, but I would need to have buy-in from colleagues. However, I cannot make that happen unless there is a real desire for change.
The role of the Speaker is always subject to a high degree of scrutiny because of the importance of the position and the need for guidance on procedural matters. Your recent comments on a potential state visit by President Trump generated much media interest. In your view, what were the real issues here?
I think the Speaker should be sparing in terms of public utterances. You should not set out to appear on the radio or give regular interviews pontificating on all manner of subjects – you must choose your interventions carefully. In the case of the Trump business, I didn’t speak from a script. The issue was raised with me and I responded to it. Do I have any regrets about that? No, not at all! I spoke up because there was a long-established arrangement whereby the Speakers have a key role in whether a visiting leader should address both Houses of Parliament or not, either in Westminster Hall, which is the most prestigious setting, or in the Royal Gallery, or indeed in the Robing Room. I was asked by a member about the procedure for deciding on this matter. I therefore explained the procedure and gave my view on the matter. I received criticism in some quarters but I felt most MPs were in agreement with me.
"I stand by the view I held that it would not be appropriate for there to be a visit by President Trump to Westminster Hall to address both Houses."
I stand by the view I held that it would not be appropriate for there to be a visit by President Trump to Westminster Hall to address both Houses. The Speaker, of course, has to be impartial. The Speaker does not take sides between the political parties, or between Government policy and Opposition policy. However, the Speaker has a role in deciding on the use of these rooms and you can’t be impartial or neutral on the question of whether someone should be invited to speak or not. If people do not want the Speaker to have a role in these matters, well of course they can change that arrangement and conclude that it should be handled in some other way. But the Speaker does have a role in these matters and I gave a pretty clear view on it. I had around 3,500 communications from members of the public, of which 80% were in my favour. So the rest is history. As to whether such a visit to the UK will take place, I don’t know. It may well do but I would be surprised if there was a visit to Parliament.
John Bercow will deliver his lecture, ‘The making of a modern Parliament’, at the University on 30 November. The talk is free and open to the public. For details and to book a place, please visit the Public Lectures web page.
Image of the Rt Hon John Bercow: courtesy of the Speaker's Office