John Bercow: Three areas to reform and renew the House of Commons
We should be proud of how the Commons has evolved in the years since the expenses scandal. But from Private Members’ Bills to recalls from recess, we can do more to strengthen the House and empower backbench MPs
Much has changed for the better for the House of Commons over the past decade, but reform and renewal are a process, not an event. I have three particular areas which I want to explore, but I would not pretend that they are exhaustive. New ideas are always needed.
Before I reach those specifics, I would like to set out why I am so upbeat about how the House of Commons has developed since 2009 after the institutional near-death experience of the expenses scandal, endured more than eight years ago.
This has come to pass for three main reasons. The first is a set of changes in how we operate. These were mostly the work of the Wright Committee of 2009-2010, whose recommendations included the election of Select Committee Chairs and the creation of the Backbench Business Committee which has, to borrow a phrase, acted to “take back control” of a section of our timetable on behalf of backbench MPs, aka the poor bloody infantry.
This process has been assisted by a second, more political factor. The past three general elections have produced what by late 20th century standards would be considered highly atypical outcomes, culminating in the current minority administration. It has almost certainly been easier for reform to take root in these very interesting conditions than would have been probable if there had been super-majorities instead.
The final element has been the change in the culture at Westminster. The Parliament elected in 2017, in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, is more representative of modern Britain than any of its predecessors.
Having set the scene, I would now like to outline my three core points in a little more detail.
The first is the missing element in the Wright Committee architecture. Wright recommended both the creation of a House Business Committee to deal with “government time” and a Backbench Business Committee to deal with “non-government time”. The House as a whole manifestly agreed because it approved the creation of these arrangements on March 4th 2010. As noted, the Backbench Business Committee has been delivered and has become, in the best sense of the term, “part of the furniture”. The House Business Committee, by contrast, which was meant to have been established within three years of that 2010 vote, a commitment explicitly endorsed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement of May 2010, has not arrived. As a matter of basic democratic principle this will not do.
The Wright formula did not seek to defenestrate the Whips Offices and it recognised that the Government of the day had a right to have its business tabled. Elections would be rendered impotent affairs if this were not the case. Ministers are, therefore, in my view entitled to a majority but not a monopoly on a House Business Committee. The Wright Committee also underlined the importance of the Official Opposition – and other opposition parties – being given more say on scheduling their business, and envisaged, I am reliably informed, the House Business Committee as the forum for such discussions. I dare venture that some of the recent tensions over scheduling Opposition Days or more accurately not scheduling Opposition days, might have been avoided if there had been a House Business Committee to hand.
However the House agrees that the Committee should be constituted, its workings should be open, democratic and transparent - features which with the best will in the world cannot be claimed for the underworld that is the “Usual Channels”.
The second item concerns the role and status of Private Members’ Bills. The Procedure Committee has considered concerns surrounding Private Members’ Bills very carefully in the past few sessions of Parliament. At the core of the Committee’s deliberations is the aspiration to introduce an element of peer group review alongside the luck of the ballot and to crack down on alleged sharp practice in the manner in which this legislation is considered. The Committee suggested that the total number of bills selected be reduced from 20 to 14. Of those 14 slots, up to four would be filled by bills to be chosen on their merits by the Backbench Business Committee on the basis of serious evidence both of preparation and prior scrutiny and of support on all sides of the House for such measures inside and, crucially, outside of the House. Those bills would have a form of “fast track” while the other slots would be filled by bills presented by Members chosen through the ballot as is done at present.
Furthermore, the Committee proposes that Standing Orders be changed to ensure that, for the first seven sitting Fridays of a session, debate on the second reading of a bill which has lasted the whole sitting should be concluded with a vote. This provision would provide the certainty necessary for the Chair to introduce time limits on speeches in such debates, if required.
It is not for me to offer judgement here on whether the formula proposed is optimal or if it would command the majority in the House. It is for colleagues, who should be given the time to debate the matter and decide.
My final area concerns the recall of the House from recess to address some matter of importance that has suddenly emerged and which should be considered by the House of Commons immediately. As matters stand, only the Government can seek a recall of Parliament. In my view, the Government and in effect the Prime Minister should have that authority and I cannot conceive of circumstances in which that request would be denied. The question is whether only the Government can even seek to petition for a recall or whether some other mechanism should be devised to allow Members as a whole to do so.
If such a reform were to be introduced, it would have to be thought through carefully in order that the mechanism cannot be exploited for partisan purposes rather than responding to a genuine urgent situation. However, it is not beyond the wit of man and woman to devise some sensible safeguards, perhaps requiring a cross-party threshold that any recall bid would be required to breach.
Just as the revival of the UQ has led to ministers volunteering statements they might otherwise have sought to avoid because of the inconvenience, so the knowledge that a cross party set of MPs had a right to seek a recall might convince the Government of the day to jump before it was pushed and bring the House back even in the depths of August with all the aggravation that this may entail.
I am proud of the manner in which the House has evolved in the past decade and hope that this has been recognised outside of it. In this article I have set out an argument for further strengthening the House as a whole, but in truth the backbench Member of Parliament in particular.
This article will appear in the next issue of The House magazine, due out on 16 October.