Taking Parliament to the People - The Next Steps

Full text of Mr Speaker's speech at Sheffield Hallam University, 6th April 2011.

Thank you very much indeed for that introduction. It is a real pleasure to be here. This is a relatively new institution with a strikingly high reputation, which seems to me to be much better than being a comparatively old institution with a notably modest reputation.

However, it is, perhaps in that spirit that I would like to talk to you tonight about "Taking Parliament to the People – The Next Steps". For the truth is, as I will outline a little later, the House of Commons has much to learn from institutions such as this university.

You have had little choice but to appreciate that you have to make your case why people should come to you, and make that case again and again, rather than arrogantly assume that customers will form an orderly queue, and a lengthy one at that, outside your door for the honour of admission. For too long the House of Commons believed that it was the only democratic show in town. It is not. We have to prove our worth and that means travelling beyond Westminster in search of the real Britain.

But before I do so I would like to offer a friendly warning about the proceedings this evening. We have a slot of about an hour. I have been told, and I intend, to speak for between 20 and 30 minutes before taking questions. I do hope there will be a lot of questions and I am content to be quizzed about more or less everything but if there are no questions from the floor then the only way that I will be able to fill the time allocated is to read out my speech again and I think we can all agree that would not be in anybody’s interest. I should let you know in advance how much I enjoy occasions such as these in that they are a strange form of occupational therapy.

I love the post of Speaker of the House of Commons but there is an irony to it. The title “Speaker” might indicate to the uninitiated that you are allowed to speak a lot but actually the less said from the chair in the chamber of the House of Commons, as a rule, the better. It is only when I am allowed out on a form of day release such as this that I am really allowed to roam beyond the words “order, order” or a sentence or two on the formalities of Parliament and say what I think and even that is subject, entirely properly, to the traditions surrounding my office which are those of strict partisan or party political neutrality, a code so strict that many of my predecessors would have regarded the inquiry “tea or coffee Mr Speaker” as potentially a trick question.
There is, nonetheless, a far bigger paradox which I want to address here this evening. It is the paradox of Parliament. The House of Commons as an institution is in a very peculiar position when it comes to public affection. It might be summarized thus. The outside of the building is loved, even revered. The inside of it is the object of suspicion even, at times, and to be supremely candid, held in contempt.

Let me elaborate on that a little further. As a symbol the Palace of Westminster is a spectacular success. It is the architectural embodiment of the United Kingdom in a manner which has few, if any, rivals. It attracts tourists from home and abroad in extraordinary numbers. If the British public were asked which building represented Britain, more would identify Parliament and Big Ben especially, even if Big Ben is technically a bell not a building, than, say, might pick Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, or any other location. On every New Years Eve it is Big Ben which is the focus of national interest as midnight approaches, even if the fireworks are displayed via the London Eye (which is a relief for me personally as I live in the small tower next door to Big Ben and would be deafened if the whole of that firework display exploded next to me).

This is an aspect of our national life which we take for granted. It is worth further reflection. It is emphatically not the case that Congress, a magnificent building it should be acknowledged, or the National Assembly in France or the Bundestag in Germany or any parliamentary building in any democracy that I can think of having anything like the same place in their national lives that the Palace of Westminster does in Britain. In the United States, a number of symbols in Washington compete for the same mantle (the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington memorial), whereas in Paris the Eiffel Tower is the local equivalent to the Palace of Westminster while in Berlin it is the Brandenburg Gate which has the same status. In a friendly challenge to this audience, I ask which, if any, piece of democratic architecture has anything close to the same impact internationally as that of our Parliament? Indeed, even a gathering such as this, esteemed as it is where higher degrees are more common than tinsel on a Christmas tree, might find it difficult to describe what any other legislative building other than perhaps the US Congress (a white building with a big dome on top) even looks like. The Palace of Westminster has been a magnificent success in expressing our democracy in a physical structure.

The paradox, of course, is while the outside of Parliament is the object of almost universal recognition and considerable respect, what happens inside is a matter of considerably more measured enthusiasm. We love our democracy but we dislike our politics. I am made aware of this by what MPs still quaintly call their postbag even though these days most of our messages arrive by email or other forms of instant technology rather than courtesy of the Royal Mail. I am well aware that much of the public believes that Members of Parliament turn up in numbers only once a week for Prime Minister’s Questions when they behave in a manner which would earn you an ASBO if you were to do the same thing in a Sheffield street (the noise in the chamber is actually, I will tell you privately, even worse when you sit in that chair in the chamber than it might seem on television). Apart from that, the public has firmly concluded from other snapshots of the House of Commons in action, virtually no one is in the chamber so MPs must be off enjoying themselves and presumably at public expense. And, besides which, parliamentarians enjoy holidays of a length that make even university academics look like Third World sweatshop labourers.

Now none of this is true, I should hasten to confirm, but that does not mean that the impression does not exist (it does), is not deeply embedded (it is) and does not become another reason to abandon any idealism about politics or faith in our parliamentary system (a scepticism which elements of the media desperate to insist that politicians are “all the same” and better still “all on the take”, has fanned). The end result is the paradox to which I referred at the outset. At no point in human history can any building be as revered on the outside and maligned on the inside as the contemporary Palace of Westminster. In terms of its public standing, Parliament in general and the House of Commons in particular, has become, I freely and openly concede to you, a sort of reverse Tardis - smaller on the inside than it appears on the outside. Parliamentarians, including the Speaker, would be wise to concede this.

I could offer you a hundred reasons, perhaps many more, why this is an unfair conclusion. Better still I can even point to evidence from respected academics in this city and elsewhere to refute it. The blunt truth is that MPs in what is now described as “the Golden Age of Parliament” (mid to late Victorian Britain) had a far easier life than those who occupy the green benches do now. In the so-called glory days (when substantially less than half the adult electorate had the vote, I note in passing), politics was an essentially amateur activity. Most MPs had other things to do during the day so it was not unusual in the 1850s and 1860s, for example, for William Gladstone to start a Budget speech at 10pm and not conclude it until the small hours of the morning (I am not sure how the BBC would cope with such an outcome today). As late as the 1970s it was not unknown for MPs to visit their constituencies only once or twice a year and as recently as the 1980s there were MPs who could deal with the whole of their constituency correspondence in a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon or at a dash in the House library. It is a strange world indeed in which there is such a disconnect between an apparent enthusiasm for our democracy and the building which embodies it and the practice of democratic representation.

But, and this is my key argument, there is absolutely no point in blaming the public for this state of affairs. That would be like performers on a stage protesting furiously that the audience had failed to understand them. If citizens love the external manifestation of their democracy but are supremely underwhelmed by its internal attributes then that is our fault not theirs. No one has a right to be loved. The media, as I mentioned, can make mischief on a massive scale but there is no virtue in condemning them and pulling down the shutters either. As Enoch Powell observed, there is as much to be won for a politician blaming the press for his fate as for the ship’s captain lambasting the weather for the condition of the sea. Parliament, and the House of Commons, has to get out and make its own case. It cannot sit there sulking on the sidelines, berating the world outside for its burnished reputation. In short, Westminster has to get out far more. It cannot expect Britain simply to come along and see it.

This talk is part of a short whistle-stop trip which I am undertaking, as I have done every time the House of Commons is in recess since I have become Speaker. In the course of about 36 hours, I will see social entrepreneurs in Nottingham, be interviewed by a community radio station there, conduct a school visit, move on here to talk to A-level students and University Politics students in this city and have the pleasure of speaking from this platform tonight. Tomorrow I am attending a University of the Third Age event in Ormskirk, Lancashire, and then a Voluntary Sector North West Lesbian and Gay Foundation in Manchester before heading back to London. I will enjoy every minute of this tour, even if I cannot be absolutely sure that those upon whom I will impose myself will feel precisely the same afterwards. The important element of all this, however, is that apart from constituency engagements in their own patch and great events in the capital cities, none of my predecessors would have undertaken such a set of engagements. This was not because they would not have had any enthusiasm for such occasions or because they would not have enjoyed such events or been a decent performer at them – anyone who has met my predecessor but one, Betty Boothroyd, would have instantly spotted her rock star qualities – but because the attitude which pervaded Parliament at the time and the office of the Speaker in particular was that such attempts at parliamentary outreach were beneath the dignity of Parliament.

It is astonishing that such attitudes lasted for so long and despite all the damage that a failure to act was doing. One of the reasons why I was so keen to come to this place and speak so frankly about our past failings is that it was in Sheffield, at The Circle, Rockingham Street, that the very first official parliamentary outreach meeting was held, in October 2008, less than three years ago. It is absolutely staggering that it took so long for the House of Commons to present itself to Britain beyond London.

Better late, however, than never. The past is the past. What are we doing about the future? An enormous amount is being done on the parliamentary estate itself to roll out the welcome mat to the public that owns the building. A purpose-built visitor centre is under construction, there are more, better and increasingly diverse tours of Parliament than ever before, including Saturday tours in summer, and subsidised school trips make it a realistic aim that children from throughout the country can come and see what we do. It would be entirely unrealistic and wrong as a matter of principle, however, just to ask Britain to come to Parliament. Parliament today has to use every means to come to a nation that it represents.

There is more that we could and should be doing. I want to press three points in particular. These relate to the Internet, campus life and the role of the parliamentary outreach service.

The first involves the ever more ambitious and imaginative use of new technology. The parliamentary website is a wonderful resource, an absolute treasure trove of information, but we must strive ceaselessly to ensure that its is accessible to every section of our society. We need to be a real presence, not simply a symbolic one, on the likes of facebook and twitter and attempt to look over the horizon to the innovations that will make even these relatively new and currently dominant technologies look comparatively obsolete in time. We might ask ourselves, for instance, whether the IPad could become a means of superior communication. We have to escape the mindset of assuming that because much of what occurs in the House of Commons involves rather traditional ritual only rather traditional media instruments are appropriate for it. We need to be ahead of the curve on the likes of YouTube. We should be shameless in acting in consort with the BBC's sensational Democracy Live, which, if you have not seen it, allows the viewer to flick between the House of Commons, the House of Lords, select committees of both Houses, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the European Parliament.

One rather brave undertaking we have embraced involved an online game – MP For A Week – which while theoretically aimed at the 11-14 year old market is actually an almost disturbingly accurate representation on the cross-pressures which affect Members of Parliament and their personal timetables. To be really ahead of the field, though, we need much deeper engagement with universities and especially the student community to determine what new methods and emerging technological means we should be covering.

The second again involves the realm of higher education. Via the citizenship element of school studies and the resources to subsidise trips to Westminster which have mentioned the capacity to promote Parliament in schools to at least some degree. We need to be more forceful than this. In the United States an understanding of how a proposal becomes a Bill and ultimately a law is regarded as very basic civic education. To be frank, it is not so here. Not only could the vast majority of even the more politically interested element of the public not manage such an explanation, it takes quite a lot of newly elected MPs a while to master it. I am sure this exalted audience is an exception but most people in our country would assume that a Third Reading was something heard at an unduly lengthy wedding and that Royal Assent was a cul-de-sac near Windsor Castle. We do not necessarily want a nation of parliamentary nerds – I for one have no appetite for inviting the competition – but I think we can all agree that an elementary shared understanding of how Parliament works would be a virtue. Within schools I would like to see the creation of Model Parliaments which would replicate the undoubted success that the Model United Nations scheme has enjoyed. I want children across Britain to sense the unanticipated thrill it is to say the words "Order, Order".

We do need to address the university universe too. I read Government at Essex University and immensely enjoyed the experience, It is a matter of regret that I am told that it is now possible to complete a degree in Political Science in many British universities while covering only the most rudimentary aspects of Parliamentary Studies, indeed if so minded it can be avoided entirely. I would not want to make term after term of it compulsory but it is a pity that it has become virtually invisible. It is even more regrettable that students who might be interested in Parliament but who are studying a degree course other than Politics really have no forum for following that conviction or passion during these three great years of their lives.

So I would like to try to light a small spark here today and hope that it might lead somewhere. Most universities have a Politics Society as well as the party political clubs and political movements seen around the typical campus. The average Political Society is quite small and they tend to be supported, not unreasonably, by those most intrigued by politics as an academic discipline and hence are politics students. I see no reason why this network could not be reinforced by a network of University Parliamentary Societies, open to anyone involved in a university with a taste for Parliament, with membership drawn in the most democratic fashion possible – tutors, students, support staff who work on site – who gather together to discuss the workings of, legislation before and most emphatically the reform of Parliament. If such bodies were to take off, then sections of the parliamentary website could be specifically directed to support their needs, a national co-ordinating body could be established and intimate links with the wonderful Hansard Society forged so that this interest in Parliament did not come to an institutional end once a graduation ceremony had closed. It would be fantastic if students here at Sheffield Hallam University were to take the lead – why let Oxford and Cambridge always steal the glory – and I would be a willing volunteer to be the inaugural Patron. There is a missing link between Parliament and the Universities and this could be the means of bringing together the chain. It must be worth an attempt at doing so.

Finally, I want to commend the Parliamentary Outreach Service which has organised this trip and which does so much all of the time to make the case for Parliament beyond Westminster. It is, as I have hinted, ludicrous that we took the length of time that we did – about 740 years if you count 1265 as the birth of Parliament in Britain – to start and we need to make up for lost time. The House of Commons, like every other part of the public sector, is having to plan for painful cuts in spending over the next few years but it is vital that public engagement is not a victim of that exercise. It would be the mother of all false economies.

We are going to have to do more with, probably, a bit less but that quest to do more must be remorseless. If you have ideas about how we could be reaching out to parts of the community for whom Parliament is utterly remote and practically inconsequential then please let me know either tonight or by letter or email or speak to Clare Cowan who is with me on this visit. It is my aim to ratchet up all of this activity so that when we reach 2015 – the 750th anniversary of the foundation of Parliament at the behest of Simon de Montford – this can be a moment of real celebration. It would be an epic achievement if by that date the paradox of Parliament about which I spoke at the start of my remarks had been closed and not only the splendour of the Victorian architectural triumph by the River Thames that is Parliament but the splendour of the democratic engagement which occurs within it were a cause for national pride.

Thank you very much for listening to me and I now look forward to addressing your questions.