Connecting the House of Commons with the country
The Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow delivered a keynote speech at the University of Northumbria entitled: Parliament Beyond Westminster: Connecting the House of Commons with the country that it serves.
Thank you very much for that introduction and indeed for this invitation. It might seem strange that I would want to come so far from Westminster to talk about the future of the House of Commons and in particular about how it reconnects with the public that it serves but this is very much a deliberate decision. The choice of this location, Northumbria University, is also very much a strategic one. Although in one sense this institution is not even twenty years old and is commonly referred to as a 'new' university, it has much from which far, far older institutions such as the House of Commons could and should learn. You have put down extremely deep roots in this community in a comparatively short period of time, have recruited a huge number of students both domestically and internationally and are widely recognised as pioneers in areas such as e-learning.
The challenge for the House of Commons is not dissimilar to the one that you have already addressed. We at Westminster have to convince a wider community that it wants to be associated with us, we need to draw far more people towards our physical site and we need to exploit every avenue which modern technology affords us to reach out to those too distant to come in through the front door. This is precisely what I am seeking to do as Speaker and it is these themes on which I will elaborate in my remarks today before taking questions on aspects of Parliament and its role.
It is no secret that the last Parliament was neither a happy place nor one which enhanced its reputation in the eyes of the country at large. Far from it. The expenses disaster was, though, merely the distinctly unwelcome icing on a thoroughly undesirable cake. The brutal truth is that for a number of decades the House of Commons had become an increasingly less relevant institution. There was the strong sense that real power had been ceded to ministers and that the role of scrutiny which a legislature in a democracy is meant to exercise had been part-abandoned to and part-seized by sections of the media instead. The studio of, for example, the Today Programme appeared to have become an alternative to the chamber and the green benches and the impact of this on the collective morale of the House was severe. Even on the parliamentary estate itself there was the sense that it was far better to be interviewed by Nick Robinson or Adam Boulton on the patch of grass opposite Parliament known as College Green than it was to waste time posing questions or making speeches in the House of Commons itself.
At about the time that I was elected Speaker 15 months ago, therefore, the House was really looking into the abyss. If it was to have any chance of restoring its reputation it also needed to restore its relevance. Not only would the old expenses system have to be dynamited but new rules were needed to liberate backbench MPs especially and allow them far more vigorously to hold the government of the day to account than in the recent past.
Without that combination, simply overhauling the old expenses structure would be a necessary and overdue exercise in accounting methodology but not much more than that. Yet through a series of changes recommended by a committee of MPs led by Tony Wright, the then MP for Cannock Chase, and adopted with support which certainly surprised the Whips on all sides of the House, Members of Parliament did reassert themselves. We have had a virtual orgy of internal democracy with elections displacing patronage – election of the Deputy Speakers, of Select Committee Chairs, and of Select Committee members. Election rather than appointment has given all of these people a new legitimacy recognised by all, and has had profound implications for how power is exercised across Whitehall and Westminster.
The new Parliament is already, therefore, a far happier and a strikingly more effective institution than the one on which the electorate called time earlier this year. We have the novelty of a coalition administration. We have had the blessing of an unusually large influx of 227 new MPs – 35% of the House – which has dramatically refreshed our political blood. And we have seen the fruits of the new rules to which I have just referred. We also returned to work in early September before our present adjournment for the party conference season, which was a sharp contrast to what had become a pattern in which the House of Commons broke up for what was called a 'summer recess' in mid to late July but did not come back again until mid-October, an inexcusable absence for almost a quarter of the year during which departments and ministers escaped scrutiny and which allowed the media a field day attacking our annual 80-odd day holiday. And unlike the two previous occasions on which we returned in September, we have not had what some have called 'Mickey Mouse' Parliamentary business, with make-weight debates and one-line whips. On the contrary, we have had Second Readings of two of the Government’s flagship constitutional Bills (on AV and reducing the size of the House, and on fixed term Parliaments), a major debate on crime and policing, and the first two debates chosen by the Back-Bench Business Committee, including one on the crucial question of the continued deployment of troops to Afghanistan.
The Parliament we are now witnessing thus has a real dynamism to it. I have done my best to encourage this through the revival of the Urgent Question, a parliamentary device which allows any MP to ask me to compel a Minister to come to the House at very little notice to address a controversy or issue which has suddenly arisen. The media are then obliged to report, because it is a matter of fact, that those exchanges have occurred in the House of Commons itself, not in a television studio or on a piece of land across the road and this once again puts the chamber of the House at the political centre stage. In the year before I took the chair, two Urgent Questions were granted by the Speaker. In the fifteen months since I had the honour to be elected to the office, I have granted no fewer than 33 such questions, including 11 since the General Election in May. These questions have covered a wide range of issues, spanned several government departments, and been submitted by both front benchers and backbenchers alike. And, in fairness, it has to be said that ministers have taken these new conditions in the right spirit. For ultimately the quality of public administration can be enhanced only if it is the subject of more incisive scrutiny. Which of you burns the midnight oil to write an essay really well if you know that it will never actually be marked? And the new intake has already shown an enthusiasm, involvement and determination which are rubbing off on their colleagues who have been in the House for many years. I am increasingly sure that the vastly different atmosphere around Westminster will not be a short-term wonder but a permanent feature.
I am also pleased that some of our most perceptive political commentators have noticed this change and are writing about it approvingly. I would commend a piece written in this regard earlier this month by Steve Richards in The Independent and not only because it is extremely kind about me. His conclusion is and I quote:
"…politics has acquired a new character, a more vibrant Commons. The Government will have cause to fear and despair of it, but could be saved by it on occasions too. As voters we should welcome the partial return to life of a moribund institution. After all, we elect MPs to the Commons. Their subsequent irrelevance was becoming dangerous in a supposedly democratic country."
We also have to invite the outside world in to look at us. The harsh reality is that until very recently the House of Commons was not very good at reaching out to its own electorate. It had become an insular place, self-obsessed, introspective, resentful that the work which it did was not appreciated and sceptical about the value of engaging with the public. The guilty parties in this respect were, invariably, Members of Parliament themselves and not the staff of the House. It was only about five years ago that a comprehensive strategy for outreach and engagement emerged and even then, alas, it was blown off course by the expenses hurricane. The strange intellectual isolationism to which I refer was symbolised in a curious way by the position that I have the honour to occupy. The office was called that of 'Speaker' but outside the Chamber of the House of Commons itself it was considered positively vulgar for a Speaker to be seen, let alone heard. The contrast with the activities of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and, once devolution had been restored consistently there, the North Ireland Assembly was really spectacular and not very flattering to Westminster. Parliament and public seemed as if in a loveless marriage where each of the partners was quietly drifting away from the other.
This was a particularly paradoxical outcome because it was so at odds with our own history. A century or so ago the House of Commons was followed closely up and down the breadth of the land. Local model or mock Parliaments then were as widespread as model United Nations have become in many schools and elsewhere. These were real civic institutions and they added enormously to the public understanding of Parliament and of politics far more broadly.
The spirit of this is captured in some of the literature about this period. One intriguing example comes from Norman Collins's classic urban novel London Belongs to Me which was published in 1945. Collins was a political enthusiast, a contemporary and friend of George Orwell, an early leader within BBC Radio (he created the Dick Barton series) and one of the true founding fathers of British television - both for the BBC and then the independent sector.
London Belongs to Me was, nevertheless, his most significant novel. The principal character in it is a somewhat buttoned-up clerk known as Mr Josser who spends much of his spare time involved with the South London Parliament, a people's debating forum which very closely shadowed that of the House of Commons and sought to wrestle in its Chamber with exactly the same awkward events, notably the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, as at Westminster. Somewhat to his surprise, Mr Josser finds himself nominated to act as Foreign Secretary in this South London Parliament and drawn ever deeper into politics. To quote Norman Collins:
"Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs! It appalled him. It was enough to appall anyone. And at such a moment too. Admittedly Munich had saved the peace. But there was still a pretty nasty undercurrent of talk about the state of Europe. It said in the morning's papers that President Hacha had been summoned to Berlin. And when Hitler invited someone to come and stay with him, it didn't usually end there. Before Mr Josser knew where he was he might find himself......No, it was no use imagining. He must keep his head, read through the reports of his Ambassadors and trust to Providence. Mr Josser and Mr Chamberlain were in the same boat now."
These model Parliaments had been a feature of life for many decades before the 1930s. They had a genuine political impact. In Robert Rhodes James's magisterial historical tome the British Revolution: British Politics 1880-1939, he makes the following observation about Andrew Bonar Law who rose to be Prime Minister in 1922 only to be cut down by cancer very shortly afterwards:
"He had trained himself to speak in local mock Parliaments – a great feature of these times, and long gone – to speak at length without notes, his mastery of complicated statistics was notable, and his bluntness and directness of expression were only to be emulated subsequently by Clement Attlee, with whom he had much in common."
If this sort of interaction between Parliament and public could occur without all the facilities of modern technology, imagine what we could achieve with those advantages now. It is this objective to which I intend to dedicate myself throughout this Parliament. I appreciate that Stalin has rendered five year plans less fashionable than they used to be. The House of Commons is, however, in what I hope is not a Stalinist spirit, working on its own version of a five year plan of engagement with the country as a whole. The end point for all this activity is the year 2015 which will be the eight hundredth anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, the document from which all our political liberties ultimately flow and the 750th anniversary of the 1265 Parliament, that convened by Simon de Montfort, which is generally recognised as the first Parliament from which the current House of Commons can claim to be descended. It is my aim to see the reputation of the House restored so that these anniversaries will be occasions of real celebration not only at Westminster but all across the United Kingdom.
Much of what we are thinking of doing involves change on the parliamentary estate itself to make it more accessible. We have a blueprint for an Education Centre, to be opened well before 2015, which would transform the experience for schoolchildren, especially, who come to the House of Commons and which would allow us to welcome some 100,000 or so of them each year. We are thoroughly rejuvenating the various tours which we offer to adults which should also make them more frequent and more enriching. We are also experimenting with how to encourage more individuals and institutions to provide evidence to Select Committees and become involved in the evaluation of proposed Public Bills. We held an initial workshop on this initiative for the first time earlier this month and it was packed out with participants.
All of this is immensely valuable but I appreciate, especially speaking at a platform in the North East of England, that these innovations may be of limited assistance if you live here. Parliament has to get out more as well as lay out the welcome mat at Westminster with zeal. While it is not possible to put the Palace of Westminster on wheels and send it out around the whole of Britain, as appealing as that idea is in many respects, there are more ways in which we can take aspects of our work out to a much wider audience and I think there is serious merit in embarking on such a set of initiatives. I note that we are not alone in holding this assessment. I find it interesting that the new coalition government has decided to continue with the experiment launched under Gordon Brown of holding certain Cabinet meetings not only away from 10 Downing Street but well beyond London. There seems to be a new consensus that politics has become too remote and that reconnection obliges us to change.
So I would just like to float a few thoughts about reforms which we could make running up to 2015 which might help us achieve our objectives. They are by no means exhaustive. Indeed, on careful reflection, we might decide that there are other priorities which we should proceed with instead. I expect we will generate scores, perhaps hundreds, of ideas as we advance towards that goal of a "Year of Parliament" in 2015 that will really be worth celebrating. I am keen to encourage everyone with an interest in Parliament to contribute to that process.
The first concerns our Select Committees and their hearings. It seems to me that we could and should hold more of these outside Westminster than we currently do. There was real progress in this regard in the last Parliament with the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and the Select Committee on the Environment and Rural Affairs very much in the vanguard. Yet this should be regarded as the tip of the potential iceberg. There is plenty of scope for other Committees to adopt such an approach if they so wish, notably when the subject matter itself, or a particular angle on it, can best be investigated in another part of the country.
The second involves the notion of an Annual Report explaining in explicitly citizen-focused terms the work that the House of Commons is engaged in and to ask for feedback on it. In these financially-testing times the idea of publishing and sending out a document in the post is somewhat implausible but surely the internet makes such an enterprise unnecessary. We could inexpensively produce an Annual Report and post it at the front of our website so that anyone interested in Parliament could download it and urge local libraries to print it off for that proportion of the population which does not have access to online facilities. It need not be a flashy or a technical publication, in fact it certainly should not be, but it could allow information which already exists but is not easily found or necessarily well understood, to be made available directly to those whom the House of Commons surely exists to serve today.
The third thought is whether we could revive the old model Parliaments. It is highly unlikely that we could do so in the fashion of the South London Parliament set out in London Belongs to Me but how about something a little more modest aimed at schoolchildren? I have been deeply involved in encouraging the development of School Councils but might these, and school debating societies, be supplemented by a model Parliament in every school annually along the lines of that which has worked so well for the model United Nations? We could provide all the necessary examples and materials on the parliamentary website and I would be very happy to chair one of these events in the same manner in which I chaired the first meeting of the Youth Parliament to take place in the Chamber of the House of Commons last October, an innovation which I am pleased to say will be repeated again at the end of next month and in every year throughout this Parliament. This should be possible by, and in, 2015.
A fourth notion is whether we could fuse the House website and the amazing array of social media which have emerged in the past few years to spur the spread of various clubs for people of all ages and different walks of life who are parliamentary enthusiasts. If it is, being realistic, impossible to recreate the South London Parliament as a physical institution in the way in which Norman Collins described it, perhaps it is perfectly possible to do in cyberspace. It is only an extension of the hundreds of thousands of internet fora which exist today and is no different in concept to entities such as Second Life which have captured the imagination of so many people. Once again I do not see why such an idea would need to be expensive. For here too, what we are really doing is employing existing resources in a more modern way.
Finally, and with 2015 firmly in mind, I wonder whether it might be possible to produce a physical exercise as well as an internet one. For the past few years the Scottish Parliament has sponsored a Festival of Politics timed to fit with the Edinburgh Festival. This has been very popular and seems to attract more than only those who are already exceptionally interested in current affairs. It is a success in part because the Scottish Parliament throws open its own facilities to participants. I can see a strong case for establishing something similar – a Democracy Week – at the Palace of Westminster and encouraging similar events to take place in cities, towns and villages throughout the country. We have enjoyed stable democracy for so long in this country that we are in danger of taking it for granted. The House of Commons is the ultimate symbol of our democracy. It should be prepared to play host to all of those who have something to say about political events at home and abroad.
These are, as I said earlier, personal thoughts, not a precise programme. What I want to do here today and at a new university which has similar challenges to those that we face, is launch a debate about the future of Parliament and look at how we can strive towards 2015 as the occasion on which the House of Commons might be celebrated. We have a huge amount of work to do to convince our fellow citizens that we are worthy of their respect but I am inspired by the change that I have seen at Westminster in this Parliament. MPs from across all parties appear to be determined to do things differently this time and if we can maintain that momentum, then profound progress can be made. I see my role as being in part an Ambassador for Parliament, willing and able to go up and down the country to make the case for Parliament and for all our democratic institutions. So, when the House of Commons is not sitting, I am determined to spend whatever time I reasonably can speaking and listening to audiences such as this one. I have now probably done more than my fair share of speaking this evening. Thank you for listening to me. The time has come for me to listen to you. I appreciate your interest.