Speaker addresses Women’s Institute conference

02 June 2010

The Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow today took up an invitation to address over 4,000 members of the Women’s Institute at their annual general meeting in Cardiff.

Speaker Bercow made the address by video link rather than in person so that it could fit in with his other duties in the House of Commons Chamber, which included the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the new Parliament.

"There are a number of very specific reasons why I wanted to address the WI. The first is that you and the House of Commons have certain things in common and there are aspects about the way that your institution has changed in the past few decades which I think set an example to us at Westminster," he said.


"The reality is that we are both complicated organisations that have to change with the times to retain relevance."

Image: PA 

Full text of Mr Speaker's address to the Women's Institute Annual General Meeting, 2 June 2010

Thank you very much indeed. Let me start by apologising for the fact that I am speaking to you via the horrendously impersonal device of video conferencing.

When you were kind enough before Christmas to extend an invitation to me to speak,  it was the working assumption in Westminster that the general election would probably be on May 6th, the House of Commons would assemble to re-elect the Speaker on May 12th, the Queen's Speech and the State Opening of Parliament would occur on May 18th and then we would have a break over the Whitsun week which would allow me to come to Cardiff today.

The trouble with working assumptions is that sometimes they do not work out. The election date was indeed May 6th but Parliament did not reassemble until May 18th, the Queen's Speech was last week and the House is sitting today which is why I cannot be with you in person.

While this delay proved to be eminently sensible in the light of the hung parliament election result it has been an irritating inconvenience for me in my ambition to talk to you. I want, to reiterate, to make it clear that my physical absence is simply a coincidence of unfortunate circumstances. It is emphatically not because I have suddenly realised that today is almost ten years to the moment since Tony Blair famously addressed your august body and did not go down that well leading me to chicken out of appearing in person as a consequence.

There are a number of very specific reasons why I wanted to address the WI in particular. The first is that you and the House of Commons have certain things in common and there are aspects about the way that your institution has changed in the past few decades which I think set an example to us at Westminster.

At a minimum, the WI and the House of Commons share the burden of harsh media stereotyping. It must drive you collectively to madness that the media cannot report your activities without implying, lazily, that your primary purpose is to provide jam today. Parliamentarians, on the other hand, suffer from the slightly less inaccurate media accusation that all we do is promise jam tomorrow.

The reality is that we are both complicated organisations that have to change with the times to retain relevance.

And in that light the House would do well to examine the example of the Women's Institute. There is absolutely no reason why in the modern world the WI has to exist and I am sure that there are many countries where similar organisations have declined and disappeared.

Far from enduring that fate, the WI has survived and thrived and has a membership of a size which if it were a political party would make it at least the second largest in the land, possibly the first if truly rigorous accounting standards were implemented.

I also suspect that the proportion of your members who are activists is rather higher than anything which the Conservative Party, Labour Party or Liberal Democrats could hand on heart claim to match.

Put crudely, you must be doing something right. I think what you have done right is retain certain traditional values but move on to address more modern, topical, gritty and at times very challenging social issues which need to be discussed but are not easy to talk about.

It is only by changing and taking on new territory that you have such a place in modern Britain.

The House of Commons has been, if I am completely candid, much less effective in that respect. It has at times allowed itself to become a prisoner of its magnificent history.

The events which led to the expenses explosion last year were symptomatic of a failure to make a transition from private club to public institution. We were not as internally democratic as we could have been nor as open and transparent to the outside world as we should have been.

Crisis, though, is an incredibly strong catalyst for change and in the course of the past year the old expenses system has been dismantled and a completely new, thoroughly independent, vastly streamlined successor has been put in its place.

In addition, a package of quite sweeping reforms has been adopted which should allow the individual backbench MP to enjoy far more influence and foster an independence of spirit. None of these reforms has attracted anything like the publicity that duckhouses, moats and bathplugs did this time last year but that is life and you have to deal with it.

Last, but by no means least, we now have in place an outreach initiative which encourages far more people to come into Parliament itself and permits Parliament to take itself out to the people. It is this aspect of my work on which I would like to focus the remainder of my remarks.

Neither the House of Commons nor the office of the Speaker is entitled to any automatic reverence just because it has a long and often fascinating history.

Respect has to be earned.

Relevance has to be demonstrated. We have to show the public what we do and why we do it. In recent years it has become far easier to book tours of Parliament and I would urge you all to avail yourselves of that opportunity.

We will have a full Saturday tours programme again this year for the first time in decades. I want to open Parliament up to the country.

In addition to this, though, we need to take Parliament out into the country. We have a small team operating throughout the regions of the country servicing schools and civic organisations, explaining what Parliament does and how the public can get involved.

That there is a real avenue for public participation is often a surprise but it does exist and is increasingly effective.

You cannot stroll on to the floor of the House and take part in debates but you can submit evidence directly to Select Committees which often take on very similar sorts of subjects to those in which the WI has taken such an interest.

I want all of this to go further.

Expert witnesses from organisations such as your own should be appearing before MPs and setting out their positions on public policy. The notion that parliamentarians have some monopoly of wisdom is ludicrously anachronistic.

All the tools of contemporary technology should be employed so that the public can petition what is their Parliament.

It is in the same spirit that I have approached my role as Speaker.

The Speaker was actually a very prominent public figure in centuries past but in recent times the expectation has been that a Speaker should be seen and to a limited extent heard in the chamber but rarely traverse beyond the confines of the Palace of Westminster.

I respect my recent predecessors immensely but I think that in the vastly changed world in which we live change was needed. So I have made outreach my personal priority, hosting over 100 events in the last 12 months. I have opened up Speaker's House to a vast array of organisations with noble social aims to enable them to hold receptions and promote their work. These include representatives of children with special educational  needs, victims of brain  tumours, people living with spinal injuries and campaigners for democracy and human rights in Burma, to name but a few. I very much hope that the WI will avail themselves of this opportunity.

I have visited dozens of schools as well as welcoming many more to Westminster and I intend to intensify that activity in the course of this new Parliament.

And like the WI I want to take on challenging areas not merely comfortable ones. I am taking an intense interest in young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and in causes such as mental health and offender rehabilitation which are as important as they are unfashionable.

In addition, I spent a day in Cornwall visiting a range of voluntary organisations explaining how they could engage with Parliament, visiting a school and chairing a session of the local youth parliament. I have also spoken at an A-level conference attended by over 2000 students.

I have had the pleasure of addressing a number of leading third sector organisations such as yours, although not normally by video link.
I have offered a number of media interviews in the last year as well.

All of this has been designed to convey the message that the House of Commons does not have to be an insular or remote place but is intimately connected with the life of the nation.

There is not much point in adopting radical change if no one outside notices it. We are only a part of the way along the path which the WI chose sagely to tread some time ago but we are at least now travelling in the right direction and we must up our pace as we continue.

The ultimate aim of all this is to reconnect the House of Commons with its electorate.

I want people to be proud of our democratic institutions not ashamed of or embarrassed by them. We have a new Parliament with a huge number of new MPs and the chance for a fresh start.

We need to seize that opportunity and I would welcome your advice and support as we do so.

I hope and think this could be achieved on a reasonable timetable of about five years. It would be wonderful if this objective could be realised.

I have a date in mind and for a reason.

The year 2015 will be the 750th anniversary of what is generally recognised as the founding of the House of Commons courtesy of Simon de Montfort in 1265 and it is also the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta signed, without enormous enthusiasm it has to be observed, by King John in 1215. These were momentous moments in our history and they should be the cause of celebration.

They are a reminder of how deep the roots of our liberties are and how long our political institutions have served us.

I think it would be fantastic if by 2015 the relationship between Parliament and the public had improved so that we could take a series of events in 2015 in Westminster but more importantly throughout the United Kingdom.

Not many institutions enjoy a 750th birthday and I would love Britain to make a party out of it.

Thank you again for inviting me to be part of this AGM and I apologise once again that mine is a virtual presence.

I have absolutely no doubt that you will continue to go from strength to strength. My responsibility is to ensure that the House of Commons can be as effective.

I am very fortunate to be Speaker at such an interesting time. After all, seven of my predecessors have been executed, one was killed in battle and another brutally murdered.

Compared with that, striving to keep order at Prime Minister's Questions is relatively straightforward. Thank you once more and the very best of wishes from all at the House of Commons to all of you.

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