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People in Politics: Our interview with the Speaker of the House of Commons

Thursday, March 12, 2015

 

As part of our 'People in Politics' series we put questions to Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. Find out why he became speaker, how he thinks politicians are viewed by the electorate and why parliament is "endlessly interesting."

Q: What would you say to people aged 18-24 who think parliament is irrelevant to their lives and do not intend to vote in the general election?


"I would ask them to think about the issues that matter to them – be it education or housing or employment – whatever it is, there is always a link to politics. Whilst we need to be doing more to ensure that it is easy for young people to engage with Parliament, we also need to put out the message that without a vote you are without a voice.  

We are working hard to encourage more young people to connect with Parliament. At the moment, we are building a brand new Parliamentary Education Centre. It is due to open in the summer and will allow over 100,000 young people to visit and learn about Parliament each year. This new Centre will provide a state-of-the-art learning facility school children to learn about Parliament, and it also visibly demonstrates our commitment to young people and the next generation of voters.    

Of course, we must not forget that it is not just young people who feel disengaged from the political system. Politics and therefore Parliament are relevant to everyone’s lives, and if people feel disconnected from it then we are obviously doing something wrong.    

To my mind quite a lot of discontent or unhappiness comes from the behaviour that Members exhibit during Prime Ministers Questions. It is the most watched session in Parliament, and the constant shouting and heckling does not present us in the best light. 

Language is another issue. The Digital Democracy Commission’s report highlighted the fact that very often the language we use in Parliament can be off-putting and hard to understand. We need to work towards changing that, and ensuring that the work of Parliament is explained clearly and concisely."  

Q: You’ve actively promoted the involvement of backbenchers. Why is this so important and how would you take this further?

"In my role as Speaker I have worked hard to promote the involvement of backbenchers. The Backbench Business Committee is an initiative which ensures that Members are able to bring those important issues into the Chamber and debate them

Backbench Members are the unsung heroes and heroines of Parliament. They work tirelessly to promote the views of their constituents, championing issues which are often unfashionable or neglected. They represent such a broad range of communities, and I think it is vital that they are given a robust platform on which to present their arguments and to initiate debate and discussion. It is the consideration given to such a diverse range of issues which makes our Parliament such a critical instrument of representation. 

In terms of the ‘to do’ list, there is one major project which I am particularly keen to see implemented. Recommended by the Wright Committee and agreed by the House at least 5 years ago, I refer to the creation of a House Business Committee which would take the organisation of official or Government activity out of the hands of “the usual channels” and put them on a formal basis with parties and interests other than the two principal sets of Whips represented. It is the last stage left in asserting the rights of the legislature over the executive."


Q: Following the alleged ‘cash for access’ scandal, what do you think the current view of parliament is amongst the public? What would you like it to be?

"Unfortunately, on the whole, I don’t think that Parliament, or politicians for that matter, are viewed positively by the electorate. Recent allegations have of course helped to further the negative perception of this place. Quite reasonably, the public believe that people should be in Parliament to represent constituents and stand up for principles and politics dear to them. People expect Members to carry out a full time job for a full time wage. 

It is not for me to make the rules about what Members can and cannot do in relation to additional paid work. But I do think much work needs to be done to convince the public that the way we work in Parliament is changing, and changing for the better. 

We have many things to be proud of in Parliament. I am proud, for example, that everyone working here in Parliament is paid the living wage. I’m proud that we are working hard to engage communities with what we do – the Education Centre is a case in point. Of course we have much more to do. But I think there are many positive changes which have come about in recent years, which can influence public opinion and demonstrate that we are becoming increasingly forward looking. Change, although it may be slow, is happening."

Q: Do we need further constitutional reforms to improve the public’s connection to parliament? (E.g. recall powers, House of Lords reform)

"There are debates to be had about recall powers and Lords reform, to give but two examples. However, they are both hotly contested issues and I shall leave them to my colleagues."

Q: Do you enjoy PMQs? Would you change the current format?

"As I have said many times before, I am completely in favour of Prime Minister’s Questions. It can only be a good thing for Members of Parliament to have the chance to ask the Prime Minister questions on behalf of their constituents. However, what I do find off-putting, and what I think members of the public also find off-putting is the behaviour of some Honorable Members during that 30 minute timeframe. The noise level in the Chamber, and the constant barracking and shouting, is simply not acceptable and does not reflect well on the House. 

The Speaker of course plays an important role in keeping order in the Chamber, but I would also look to the whips to encourage more orderly and civilized behaviour. It is high time that we in the political class stopped thinking of PMQs as our private indulgence. It is not. It is a public spectacle. I very much doubt that those who shout and gesticulate wildly would want their constituents to see them behaving in that extraordinary fashion."

Q: Why did you want to be Speaker of the House of Commons?

"To me, having been passionate about parliament from the moment of my election in 1997, the role of Speaker gradually came to seem an obvious goal. 

I knew that ministerial positions would not suit me, but putting myself forward for Speaker would give me an opportunity to champion parliament and help to deliver beneficial change. In fact, the job is even more rewarding than I thought it would be. Parliament is endlessly interesting and I enjoy it immensely. 

My aim as Speaker has always been to bring about necessary and desired reform; to catapult the backbench heroes to centre stage; to increase scrutiny; to modernize operations. Of course, there is always more to do, and I intend to continue helping to deliver reform that people want."

Q: How do you balance being Speaker and a constituency MP?

"I have excellent teams both in Westminster and in Buckingham, who help me to fulfill the requirements of each role. As a passionate champion of the backbench Member, the needs of my constituents are just as vital as the demands of my role as Speaker. I travel to my constituency most weekends for an extensive set of engagements. Of course, balancing the two is hard work, but I find each role fundamentally stimulating and rewarding, so it never really seems like hard work in the end." 

Q: What has been your most memorable moment as Speaker so far?

"Two moments spring to mind. First, the debate on the Hillsborough disaster was the most moving I have heard and the backbenchers who initiated it have triggered a re-examination of the tragedy. Secondly, welcoming Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Westminster Hall to address both Houses of Parliament was an unforgettable experience. She is one of my heroines and amongst the bravest people on the face of the planet."

Q: Who is your political hero?

"I do not have one hero. William Wilberforce, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are all heroes to me. Of course, Wilberforce and Churchill were right-of-centre figures. From the left-of-centre, Keir Hardie and Eleanor Rathbone were both remarkable figures in different ways and, in my view, somewhat underrated."

Q: What do you like to do away from politics?

"To keep fit I swim four times a week for 45 minutes a time but I am not an accomplished swimmer! My passions are reading, tennis and football. Like most politicians, I do read a good many biographies and autobiographies but I also enjoy modern fiction, notably Ian McEwan, Sarah Waters and Sebastian Faulks. 

I adore tennis – trying to play and watching tournaments throughout the year. As family, friends and work colleagues know, I am an utterly devoted fan of Roger Federer, following his matches all year round. Interviewing him last year for the BBC over Christmas was a highlight of 2014 for me. 

As for football, I am an Arsenal season ticket holder and watching the Gunners with my son Oliver as they won the FA Cup last May at Wembley was another highlight of the year."

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