Speaker addresses Oxford Union Society

Full transcript of speech: The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP, addresses the Oxford Union Society on Friday 5 February.

Thank you very much indeed Mr President. It is an enormous honour to be asked to address this chamber by myself alone, outside of the context of a debate, an accolade which I note puts me in the company of such political luminaries over the years as Kermit the Frog. I did not have the pleasure of attending this university and so as a student did not sit in or speak at the debates here. A friend of mine did, however, and perhaps by way of a warning for my performance tonight, he informed me that it was in this chamber that he heard the most effective heckle that he has ever witnessed.

The occasion concerned was the opening debate of, like this, a Hilary Term. It was the tradition of this Society then, and I believe it still is now, for the first speaker in the first debate of any term to be an ally of the new President who would spend the initial minutes of his or her speech making witty observations about the President before moving on to tackle the subject matter in hand. At this moment, the debate was on a motion condemning animal experimentation (an issue which I appreciate remains a matter of huge controversy in this university and city). The opening speaker duly expended the first five minutes of his speech (although it felt, I am told, more like fifty minutes) telling joke after joke about the President of the day, which not a single soul in the audience found remotely funny. To describe this attempt at humour as bombing would massively understate the situation. The silence was not merely deafening but verging on the aggressive as time dragged on and the venerable maxim “if you are in a hole, stop digging” was manifestly ignored by the man at the despatch box. In the end, the message finally registered and the poor fellow turned to the motion before the House, the call to prohibit vivisection. “Mr President”, the orator announced, “this debate is about pain”. Quick as a flash, a booming voice from about two rows behind him intoned “you’re telling us” and the argument was all but over.

There is something in that exchange which applies to the dialogue between Parliament and the public over the past year. The expenses scandal and debacle has been the subject of enormous internal anguish for the House of Commons which has felt a strong sense of collective pain and a degree, let us be honest, of self-pity, even anger about the manner in which what had been essentially private financial arrangements have been revealed to the wider world. Meanwhile the public has also felt pain, self-pity (and with sound reason) and anger over exactly the same affair but in a massively different manner. There have been times where it has appeared that Parliament and the public have inhabited parallel universes. That was never a sustainable situation, nor was or is there the remotest chance that the public would or should apologise to Parliament for misunderstanding it and that those parallel universes would merge on House of Commons terms. The task of reconnecting the House of Commons with the country at large is one which the House has to meet and it will be an impossible challenge to undertake unless it makes amends for the past, ensures the creation of convincing new arrangements for the future and considers wider reforms of itself.

These reforms must extend well beyond expenses and address squarely the sense that the practical authority of Parliament has been eroded so sharply over recent decades that it risks being reduced to what Walter Bagehot called in a different context the “dignified” rather than the “efficient” component of that wonderfully mysterious item, namely the British Constitution. The House of Commons has to ask whether it is content with its current condition and if it is not, what it intends to do about it.

It is particularly valuable for me to be here, tonight, Mr President, because we are in the early days of what will be a fundamental February for the House of Commons. The report into past expense claims overseen by Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Paul Kennedy was published yesterday. The closing date for the public consultation on a new expenses regime being conducted by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) is next Thursday. In less than three weeks time, February 22nd to be precise, the House of Commons is due to debate a series of proposals for the reform of its own proceedings based on a report from a committee chaired by Dr Tony Wright MP, a noted figure in the drive to modernise the House of Commons. These are all three very significant events for both the House and our democracy and they will represent the core of what I want to convey to you this evening. In doing so, I would like to issue a couple of thoughts about the risks involved either in implementing the wrong kind of expenses structure or in allowing arcane and obscure procedural considerations to prevent the House making decisions about its future.

Let me start with the work of Sir Thomas Legg and his team, supplemented by the appeals process which has been the work of Sir Paul Kennedy. Sir Thomas has had to endure what must count as one of the most miserable endeavours in British public life. It was his responsibility to sift through and validate 147,000 separate receipts, submitted by MPs over a five year period, which can hardly have made for the most entertaining of reading. He has focused on a very small sub-section of those chits (about 0.5 per cent) but which, nonetheless, involve a significant amount of public money. Where there have been errors in the past, MPs, myself included, were informed of his findings and repayments were requested. Many colleagues reached for their cheque books straight away. Others exercised their wholly legitimate right to appeal because they thought Sir Thomas was in error. Sir Paul Kennedy has now assessed those appeals and I confidently expect that where he has come down on the side of Sir Thomas and not the member involved, repayment will follow very swiftly. If it has not taken place already and if it is then refused the House of Commons Commission (which I chair and which is responsible for the administration of the House) is ready to seek the power from the House to seize back that money via salary or severance. Repayment is not an option but an obligation. It will, unambiguous will, happen.

If the sort of transparency which the Legg enterprise has involved had been followed in the past then, bluntly, the House would not have found itself in the sorry state it is. Ultimately, secrecy is invariably corrosive and the so-called “redaction” methods seen when past expense claims were published by the House invited and secured mockery. You cannot present yourself as whiter than white on the basis of paperwork which seems to others to be a sea of black ink. That era of censorship has ended. It has been a brutally painful process but I believe that the whole of the past has been dragged out into the light. This is absolutely essential to drawing a line under all this.

The past is one thing, the future quite another. I cannot contend that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) is a household name but it will be pivotal to the restoration of the reputation of Parliament. It is surely right that all future mechanisms for not only expenses but payment levels should be determined by a body which is completely independent of the House of Commons. As a rule, no one in any sphere in life should be in the potentially corrupting situation where he or she can mark their own work, although I will understand it if this audience is less than convinced of this case when it comes to their own essays. It falls, therefore, to IPSA, to conclude its consultation exercise in six days and then set out a comprehensive framework for the future in a mere six weeks or so thereafter.

This is change that is being conducted at breakneck speed. Yet I am completely confident that IPSA has the leadership and the resources to produce a compelling blueprint which strikes the appropriate balance between satisfying the public that the new rules are rigorous and credible and ensuring that we have a House of Commons which is robust and capable of representing the country effectively. I find the suggestion that IPSA might be interested in watering down the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly and his colleagues on the Committee on Standards in Public Life to be most improbable and incompatible with the evidence. I expect IPSA to operate in the letter and spirit of the Kelly architecture and it would not surprise me if there were aspects of the IPSA solution, when it eventually emerges, which are seen as somewhat tougher than even Sir Christopher envisaged.

I referred a few seconds ago to a balance. And there is such a balance that needs to be struck. It is one which should not be about the status of MPs but about their ability satisfactorily to serve their constituents. I do not see any chance of the public conceding that MPs should receive a benefit of any kind merely because the letters MP after their name should attract reverence. However, I do consider it possible to have a sane and sensible discussion about what might enable an MP to fulfil the role to the benefit directly of his or her constituents. We need to ponder what sort of parliamentarians and Parliament we want. In this light, I want to set out some words in defence of politics and politicians.

There is the danger, which I am sure that IPSA will avoid, but the fact that there is a serious danger must be signalled, that we lurch from one extreme to the other in the aftermath of the expenses catastrophe. If some of those who have contributed to the discussion about what should come next are heeded, then there is the risk that the House of Commons would become the natural home for three relatively small sections of society, these being the independently wealthy (by inheritance or through earnings), the institutionally wedded (backed financially by, for instance, the trade union movement) and the ideologically welded (those so committed to a particular position on the political spectrum or so passionate about certain policy positions, that they would enter Parliament regardless of the terms and conditions).

Now there is, I should state with complete clarity, a strong case for all three sections in the parliamentary process. The willingness of those who have private standing to involve themselves in public service rather than simply retreat to the Riviera is to be applauded. There are sectional interests in Britain which are entitled to be heard in the House of Commons, not banished from it. Having once been distinctly ideologically welded myself (although these days as Speaker I am less ideological welded than ideologically gelded), I am in no position to criticise others for philosophical purity or a dogged determination to pursue certain causes whatever others may think. I would not like the House of Commons ever to be a chamber without a conscience or devoid of those who some might designate as “characters”.

What would be wrong, though, badly wrong, is if Parliament were to be dominated by representatives of the independently wealthy, the institutionally wedded and the ideologically welded with virtually no one else to be seen on the green benches. There has to be the space for lots of other citizens as well. In devising new arrangements, therefore, we must be exceptionally wary of doing anything which dissuades individuals of ability and ambition from standing for Parliament because they cannot afford it. The expenses system should not be a disincentive to those who would otherwise be inclined to offer themselves for election. It would be a bizarre paradox if next year, the 100th anniversary of the decision to allow for the payment of MPs, saw us again become a House distant from Britain at large because of money.

The issue of parliamentary reform is about far, far more than money. The challenge that faces the House of Commons is not simply about rescuing its reputation but is about restoring its relevance. It is an open secret that Parliament is struggling to exercise its scrutiny function as it would like to do. This is the result of a combination of factors. Individual MPs face competing demands on their timetables. They have never been, and have never previously been expected to be, more vigorous advocates for their constituents across such a range of issues - personal, local, national and indeed international. This is immensely valuable but it means that other functions will be squeezed as a consequence. Difficult decisions have to be made between time spent in the office dealing with constituency enquiries versus time spent in the act of scrutiny whether it be through Select Committees, Public Bill Committees or the chamber itself. The candid truth is that the modern MP is a highly cross-pressured person with complicated choices to make as to what should be his or her priorities.

In the same era, furthermore, what there is that requires scrutiny has expanded dramatically. Let me illustrate this with a few examples. The average number of Bills in a typical parliamentary session has remained about the same – around 40 or so – but the legislation itself appears to be lengthening almost relentlessly. So in 1993, there were 2,645 A4 pages of primary legislation. By 2000, the tally had risen to 3,841 A4 pages. Come 2006 the total had soared to 4,911 A4 pages, an increase of 86 per cent in little more than a dozen years. A reading list consisting of almost 5,000 pages of extremely dense and often highly technical text is, I think you will agree, one hell of a reading list and would be even if it was the only matter on which an MP had to focus, which it plainly is not. It does not finish there. In the same year (2006) there were also 11,562 pages of secondary or delegated legislation to throw into the equation. One of the reasons why this state of affairs exists is that governments make their own legislation longer by amending it as it makes its way towards the statute book. In one recent year, ministers collectively introduced 5,000 amendments, repeat 5,000 amendments, to their own bills in the course of a parliamentary session.

So the essence of the scrutiny dilemma can be summarised in six words – “too little time, too many pages”. This is not only bad for the House of Commons but, I would suggest to you very strongly, bad for public administration in the round. The sheer complexity of government and the span of the modern state has imposed a huge scrutiny challenge on Parliament with which we are wrestling. The late great Robin Cook once remarked sagely that “better scrutiny makes for better government”. The logic of that formula must be that worse scrutiny also makes for worse government.

Mr President, I appreciate that the words “parliamentary procedure” are not necessarily the most exciting in the English language. Yet, as I have indicated, parliamentary procedure matters. When the House of Commons was struck by the expenses whirlwind, not only the party leaders but parliamentarians across the piece recognised that it was essential to look again at the way the House operates in the realm of scrutiny as well as deal with the immediate crisis. A committee of MPs was convened under the leadership of Dr Tony Wright MP and it was asked to produce a programme of possible changes at a pace not dissimilar to that which IPSA is striving to match right now and it did so with commendable vigour, reporting last November.

The array of reforms which have been recommended is striking in its scope. Dr Wright and his colleagues have proposed that the chairs of Select Committees should be elected by the whole House of Commons rather than emerge in a Delphic manner heavily influenced by the whips of the major parties. They made the case for reducing the number of members of Select Committees to make them more efficient and that those members should also be nominated by secret ballot, this time a vote held within the political parties. In other areas, the Wright Committee championed causes which would reinforce the backbencher as an individual political actor. They urged that the right of backbenchers to place motions before the House for a debate and vote be restored. They favoured reform to ensure that Private Members’ Bills could not be obstructed by obscure parliamentary tactics alone. They advanced the cause of protected time for backbench business with a backbench business day and a Backbench Business Committee to oversee all this activity. They asserted that the next Parliament should have the right to insist that the House sits in September rather than waiting until October as it does at present, much to the irritation of the public. Finally, and most radically of all, they insisted that the House of Commons would fully reassert itself as a check and balance on the executive only if a completely new House Business Committee was established to supervise the whole of our timetable.

To the outside world, this laundry list of initiatives might not seem revolutionary. In many instances I dare say they would strike the layperson as common sense. As a package, nonetheless, this is bold material and if adopted it would have a significant impact on the relative power of Government and Parliament. It would not in any way be the last word on reform, even the most zealous of those who served on the Wright Committee would concede that more could be done, but if accepted by the House it would be a very notable statement of intention which would have a notable impact. It would constitute a profound shift in attitudes and expectations – both within the House and amongst those whom we serve. The assumption of greater parliamentary independence and the empowering of the House to steer its own course about what it does and how it does it would provide the platform for more ambitious change. At a minimum, the House of Commons needs to ask itself what it wants of itself and use the Wright Committee as the starting point for that act of contemplation.

It is not my role as Speaker to tell MPs how to vote on such measures. My own views are in a sense a matter of public record in that I issued a manifesto when I stood for Speaker, spoke in public hustings and made a formal speech to colleagues in the chamber on the day of the election itself. It would not require a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that there is some considerable similarity between the propositions which I advocated then and the detailed suggestions which Dr Wright and his committee have put on the table since. I think it is, however, perfectly fair for the Speaker to make the case for MPs having the right to vote on measures such as these when they have been commissioned by and of the House itself, even if a majority of MPs were to decide that they would prefer to reject them. This is one report which should not gather dust.

It is thus pleasing that the House will have the chance to debate the Wright Committee on the 22nd of this month and that the opportunity will exist for many of its most important provisions to be embraced or not. I am sure that the discussion in the chamber will be a lively one and will reflect the importance of the questions involved. The Prime Minister has said on the floor of the House that MPs would have the chance not just to “debate” Wright but make “decisions” on it and it is proper that this pledge has been honoured. The House should seize the moment with both hands.

There is, it should be acknowledged, some concern about the precise procedural device by which the House will be asked for its opinion. Without imposing too much tedium on this audience, I will summarise the situation as one which means that not only a majority, or even a cross-party consensus but unanimity is needed in order for reforms such as the election of select committee chairs by the whole House to be accepted. If there were a sense that a clear majority in the House had been frustrated because of the politics of process, then I sense there would be an extremely large number of exceptionally dissatisfied customers across all political parties. In anticipation of this, Harriet Harman, the Leader of the House of Commons, pledged last week that if resolutions fell because of procedural failure, the Government would bring those measures back via a series of straightforward votes shortly afterwards. And on Tuesday, the Prime Minister himself declared that “the proper role of parliament is, indeed, to scrutinise the executive and it should be given all the necessary tools to do so”. This is a very welcome promise but it would be a matter of profound disappointment, to put it mildly, if the reforms required to hand the House of Commons those tools were not to happen before the general election is upon us.

I have, I am aware, burdened this Society with an intense set of observations about the aftermath of the expenses affair and the nuances of how parliamentary reform might be approached. If there is anyone here who is due to write an essay on the House of Commons this weekend then they might be grateful to me for my endeavours tonight but the rest have very kindly put up with me inflicting the rhetorical equivalent of waterboarding of you and I thank you for enduring this experience. In concluding my remarks, Mr President, and before answering whatever questions are directed to me, I would like to offer some broader thoughts about the virtues of politics as a pursuit.

One of the many, many disastrous features of the expenses scandal is that it has reinforced what was already a well developed scepticism bordering on cynicism about politics and politicians. There are few more toxic statements than “they are all the same” and “they are all in it for themselves” and I have to tell you with unremitting honesty that one of the consequences of the expenses meltdown is that those words have become more credible in the eyes of many in the electorate. We need to address this by making the case that politics is not a dirty word or a dirty trade but the device by which change that improves the quality of lives led across this country is delivered. Politics needs to be rescued as a cause. It has to be reclaimed for what it really is.

The reputation of parliamentarians also has to be reclaimed. As I have observed elsewhere, the paradox is that in a period when MPs have never worker harder, their standing in the eyes of the electorate has scarcely been lower. I would like to make a defence here of my colleagues, their output and their variety as human beings. The House as it stands contains an astonishing range of people and backgrounds.

The average age is slightly more than 50 but this covers a stunning spread from the Rev Ian Paisley MP who is 83 to Chloe Smith MP who is 27. At the 2005 election some 128 female MPs were elected along with 15 MPs from ethnic minorities. Those numbers should be higher, as the recent Speaker’s Conference which I chaired has stated, but it should be remembered that in 1979, there were only 19 female MPs and none from ethnic minorities. The educational background of MPs is steadily moving away from the norm of Public School and Oxbridge – no ringing applause for that line! The range of past careers is also intriguing. To take the example of the three Deputy Speakers with whom I have the joy of working, one (Sir Alan Haselhurst) came from the chemical and plastics industry, another (Sylvia Heal) started as a social worker before moving into the NHS, and the last one (Sir Michael Lord) was an arboriculturalist. You cannot get very much more different than that. This is reflected right across the House of Commons, for instance the Labour Chief Whip, Nick Brown, was once an advertising executive while his Conservative counterpart, Patrick McLoughlin, was formerly a miner and this to me is a source of real strength. The tragedy of the House in recent times is that it has allowed its reputational whole to become much less than the sum of its parts and we need to reverse this impression.

The Oxford Union Society has been the incubator of countless political careers. One especially interesting book written about it more than a quarter of a century ago now is titled “Playground of Power”. It would be a matter of immense sorrow to me if the audience in front of me did not contain large numbers of people who were ready to commit themselves to the electoral process and to aspire to stand for and sit in the House of Commons. It should also be a subject for sorrow for the entire country as well. There are times when, as John Kenneth Galbraith mused, “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable”. There are many other moments when politics is infinitely more positive than that. I would implore all of you to answer the calling of politics and public service if you hear it. The House of Commons remains the natural hub of our civic society.

This city is known, a little harshly, as “the home of lost causes”. It might have been a little reckless for me to come here and conclude that the restoration of parliament’s reputation and relevance is not only a desirable but a realisable objective. But I do believe that it can be done, it should be done and it must be done. I do not want the House of Commons to become some sort of museum. I want to see it back at the centre of the national stage. The House has carelessly made itself many enemies but it should still be capable of mobilising its multiple friends. I know that the Oxford Union Society is a natural friend to the House and I welcome that association. Mr President, I am grateful for your invitation to be here this evening. Thank you all very much for listening and, above all else, for declining the chance of the killer heckle.