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Friday 24th February 2012 | 09:50
Speaker Bercow has given a wide-ranging interview to the latest issue of The House magazine and it's a great read.
Underlining his passion for reform, he calls for more family friendly sitting times for the Commons and makes clear he thinks it should sit also thoughout September - and that the party conferences should switch to weekends as a result.
He also makes plain that he wants the Government to stick to its plans for a House Business Committee and even floats the idea that his deputy Lindsay Hoyle could chair it. (“Any self respecting football club would expect to control its own fixture list, and given that the House is the cockpit of our democracy it ought surely to have a major say in what it debates, when, and for how long.”)
Speaker Bercow also told me and Sam Macrory:
* how he was 'horrified' by the £400,000 fig tree contract for Portcullis House, adding that the contract should be revisited, preferably by this September
* why he thinks Commons Prayers are an 'enjoyable' start to the Parliamentary day and wants them to remain
* how a new 'buffer zone' could be used to prevent future Murdoch-style pie attacks on witnesses
* how he punished George Osborne for leaks of the Autumn Statement
* why he keeps PMQs going after 12.30pm
* why Urgent Questions are 'the new Prime Minister's question' for MPs. "An unpredictable House is a more effective House"
* he will stand as Speaker again in 2015
* revealed that he and wife Sally had a 'frank exchange of views' over her appearance on Celebrity Big Brother
The Speaker kindly gave us more than an hour, so there are plenty of words. Read the full feature article here in our new The House magazine section.
Alternatively, here's his key quotes, topic by topic:
On the Commons’ £400,0000 fig trees contract:
“I was horrified by it. I had no idea of the cost that the House had been incurring,” he declares. “There will be members of the public out there... who are not taking notice of all the good work of the backbench business committee or the plans for the House business committee, or of the incidents of Urgent Questions, but who will have noticed the story of the House of Commons trees, and inevitably and understandably it will cause people out there to think these people are living in another universe.”
“The honest answer is I think the contract should absolutely be revisited. If we are going to have trees, they absolutely shouldn’t be trees that cause us to fleece the taxpayer in this way, and that must change at the earliest opportunity. If there is a contract and it’s going to cost us more to get out of it immediately than not, then it may well have to wait... but should the present arrangement continue beyond September? Absolutely not.”
On keeping Commons Prayers:
“If you ask me, do I think that the way in which we conduct prayers is reasonable and generally popular, the answer is I do. If you ask if I find it an enjoyable start to the parliamentary day, I do. If you ask me do I think that having a Speaker’s chaplain – and in particular this Speaker’s chaplain – is a positive for the House, I absolutely do.
“Personally I would prefer to keep it as it is. Yes I’m a reformer, but just because you are a reformer, it doesn’t mean you have to change everything. I believe in changing to make the House stronger. I don’t myself believe that getting rid of prayers would make the House stronger.”
“If enough Members wanted to look at it, I’m certainly not going to object or try to impose my view.”
“We’re not bound by the courts on this and the National Secular Society won’t have any impact on what we in the House do and nor should it. Is it in any way discriminatory?
“The prayers that we have in the House are before the start of our main business, no item of business takes place before prayers at all. They are not compulsory, nobody has to come along if they don’t want to.
“There are two days a year at most [where it matters for attendance]. On the day of the Queen’s Speech the House is usually packed, on the day of the Budget the House is usually packed and if you haven’t put in a prayer card but still wanted to sit down at the start you might struggle to find a seat. But would you be prevented from speaking? Well, no because the Chancellor’s Budget statement is a statement not a speech so it’s not interrupted. On the day of the Queen’s Speech, theoretically there could be a Member who was keen to intervene on the Prime Minister in the opening speech but didn’t want to come to prayers to put in a prayer card..there are quite a lot of ‘ifs’ here…so what I’m saying is theoretically there is a ground for criticism. But I think that there should be a degree of reasoned, balanced common sense.”
On Common Security changes post-Murdoch pie:
“One thing that can be considered and it should be considered on a case by case basis, is the configuration of the room. First of all in the sense that there is some argument for saying that people should be a bit further back, a buffer zone, a bit like in Westminster Hall. One could argue that the gap where the public are sitting and where prominent witnesses are sitting should be larger. There is some argument saying, I’m not sure this would be altogether popular with my Parliamentary colleagues, that in a situation of that kind it would have been better to have had the public seated behind the chairman of the committee than behind the prominent witness. Because with no disrespect to John Whittingdale, I think he would accept that he would be a less likely target for a protestor than the controversial and extremely famous witness.
“Whether a Select Committee chairman would want a potentially excited or aggrieved audience sitting behind him or her is another matter but I think there is some argument for that. I also think there is a very good argument for saying either bags should be checked again before they go into the committee room or and I would say this is preferable, bags should be left outside or better still they should be put in a neighbouring room. Why do members of the public need to be accompanied by bags in a situation like that?
“I think that some lessons have been learnt. In relation to that particular incident I think it’s true to say that lessons have been learnt about the security presence and policing within the room and about the arrangements for visitors to the room. So for example, on the occasion of the Rupert Murdoch appearance I think there was a concern that the police were situated some distance away from where there turned out to be trouble and that wasn’t ideal. Although there was much focus on the fact of the pie in theory at least it could have been no pie and no offensive weapon at all. It could simply have been the individual concerned physically lashing out with his own fist at Rupert Murdoch.
On why the Commons should sit through September, with party conferences cut to weekends-only:
“This is our main place of work. Most people have an annual holiday entitlement and unless they are taking annual holiday, they will ordinarily be at work in September. And I think a lot of our electorate think, given that the MPs finished in the latter part of July, why are they not back at their place of work undertaking their scrutiny, standing up for our interests, debating our concerns, in September. They should be. And frankly I agree with that.
“I know it may be easy for me to say this now that I am no longer a party member. I have never myself found it persuasive that we should up sticks and abandon our main responsibility for which we are paid by the taxpayer in order to trog off for week-long conferernce. If the political parties wanted to stage conferences at weekends, perhaps running from a non-sitting Friday until a Sunday afternoon, they could perfectly well do so and then it wouldn’t intrude on our professional time. There are these people who say ‘ah yes but these agreements with conference centres tie us down for years’. The answer to that is if ever we are going to change the situation we have got to call time on that.
“What is so utterly sacrosanct about these lengthy conferences? They could perfectly well take place Friday to Sunday in a very businesslike and disciplined fashion. Would that be a change? Yes.”
“I think if the argument is that the business [in September] isn’t sufficiently substantive…my argument is well, make it more substantive. Surely none of us is seriously saying to the electorate we have nothing useful, worthwhile, important, or urgent to consider?”
On why he forced George Osborne to endure a three hour debate on the Autumn Statement:
“I was very displeased by the leaking and systematic public commentary on the Autumn Statement. I thought, apart from anything else, it was worth running the Autumn Statement exchanges very fully so that I could establish whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer had anything to say inside the chamber that he hadn’t already said outside it.”
On why he extends PMQs:
“If the Prime Minister has a relevant announcement to make at the start – and let’s be absolutely clear that I am not in any way, shape or form criticising the Prime Minister for doing so – some allowance in my opinion should be made for that. If it’s because he’s referring to the tragic loss of life to our servicemen or paying tribute to Her Majesty or for whatever other reason, it’s highly honourable and laudatory that he should, but I don’t think it should come out of the half an hour.
“I think that there is a lot of noise that can eat into the time. If by extending it just a little bit in the light of possibly something that’s been said at the start that’s taken up a few seconds and in the light of noise by other members who, let’s face it , are not trying to ask a question, if by being just a little bit flexible I can allow somebody at the end to get in then I think that from time to time I might want to do so.”
On Urgent Questions:
“The Urgent Question really has become the new Prime Minister’s question because it’s a precious opportunity frankly, pretty much a unique chance, to seize national attention” he declares. “An unpredictable House is a more effective House. It’s a good thing if perhaps the Government cannot always tell what is going to happen next.”
On commercialising the Commons:
“I’m open to some of it because I do think we should try to improve our revenue raising. I’m a little anxious about the idea that large corporates should buy their way into the House. I’m uncomfortable with that.
On running for Speaker again in 2015:
“I wouldn’t expect to do more than nine years. Now if we get to the end of this Parliament, I will have done six and I would hope and expect to do the bulk of the next Parliament. I wouldn’t be tempted to go on and on.
“There are colleagues who say it is unfair to expect new members at the start of a Parliament who realistically don’t know the candidates for Speaker to judge.
“I think the overwhelming majority of my colleagues can see that I’m conscientiously trying to do what’s right and fair by backbenchers. If there are particularly colleagues who harbour grudges or hold an ill opinion of me that’s absolutely their prerogative. If over a period some of the people who have been very critical actually start to think again…
“It’s a matter of fact that Mark Pritchard and I have clashed in the past. Mark Pritchard has quite openly said that he thinks I do the right thing by backbenchers, he’s very supportive and I know of a number of other people in that category. “
On his media critics:
“They’re scribbling away their verbal banalities and their breathtaking insignificance. Intellectually there’s no weight, politically they are not particularly savvy. They scribble away and the world goes on. I’m very happy. I’m sorry if it makes them unhappy that I’m happy but I’m very happy. I have no plans to die tomorrow but if I die tomorrow I will die a very happy man. I feel I’m very lucky. There’s no point in worrying about things you can’t influence.
“One thing that all of us in politics have got to accept is that on the whole it is much better to have a free media than not. The alternatives are in my view unthinkable. We maybe need a better, voluntary, self-regulation scheme, but on the whole it is better to have the media we have got than a state controlled media without a shadow of a doubt.”
On Sally appearing in Celebrity Big Brother. Asked if his wife was right to describe the argument as the ‘biggest ding dong’ of their marriage:
“We had a candid exchange of views on the merits of her participating in that programme. But in the end it was her choice and I do respect the fact that it was her right to choose.. I’m not going to be a hypocrite about it and say that I was in favour of her taking part. I felt that the programme was not a high quality programme and I did feel, Richard Desmond will not be surprised to hear me say this, that if he wanted to give money to her and indeed my favourite charity, Ambitious About Autism, it was perfectly open for him to do so without her going on the programme. And I thought that it was not necessary or desirable for her to go on it. If you’re asking ‘is it still the source of argument or consternation between us?’ I can honestly say to you it isn’t.”
On Sally’s claim that ‘the number of women who hit on him has gone up dramatically’ since he became Speaker:
“I have not noticed any such thing, not as far as I am aware. I have not looked for it and wouldn’t want it and I love my wife very much. And I have never looked at another woman since I’ve been married to Sally.”
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