Reputation, relationships and renewal must be the priorities for the next Speaker

Posted On: 
28th October 2019

The election of a new Speaker is a moment of opportunity to refresh Parliament’s culture and perception, writes Ruth Fox

'The political context facing the new Speaker will also throw up many of the same challenges that John Bercow confronted.'
Credit: 
Baldo Sciacca

The election of a new Speaker offers an opportunity to think afresh about the challenges facing Parliament and how best to tackle them. The public reputation of Parliament and MPs is at a nadir. Internally, relations between Members and staff have been damaged by the delay in implementing the Cox Report.

The political context facing the new Speaker will also throw up many of the same challenges that John Bercow confronted. How should the rules and procedures be fairly applied when the government does not command a majority, when the parties are divided and dysfunctional, and when over 100 MPs do not belong to the governing or main opposition parties?

The new Speaker will also preside at a time when Westminster will need to rethink how it manages its business for a post-Brexit world. This will pose new scrutiny and legislative demands in repatriated areas of policy responsibility and open up new questions about relations within the Union as well as with the wider world.

None of this provides a conducive environment in which to convince the public about the necessity of a multi-billion pound refurbishment programme.

A helpful way to think strategically about these challenges and their solutions might be to do so in the context of three Rs: “reputation”, “relationships” and “renewal”.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the years ahead is to improve the reputation of Parliament. The Speaker must set the culture and tone of the institution going forward. Poor behaviour by Members inside and outside the Chamber needs to be tackled and a deeper culture of accountability and transparency needs to be embedded in the running of the institution. 

Fostering more positive relationships with key stakeholders will also be vital. It must start with implementation of the Cox Report. Tackling concerns around the unpredictability of business and the rules governing speech lengths might also help nurture a less fractious atmosphere in the Chamber.

The work of Parliament in the next decade is going to be dominated by the development of governance and policy arrangements post-Brexit and by planning for and implementation of the R&R Programme. Urgent thought needs to be given to the implications of these developments for the work and effective functioning of the House.

The Speaker could act as a facilitator and a champion for change with these three “R” objectives – “reputation”, “relationships” and “renewal” – always in mind.

A governance review might be established to look again at the House’s opaque and confusing decision-making structures. Would the Commission be better led by an MP and supporting deputies elected by the House with a remit to drive forward change? Has the Director General’s review led to the improvements that were expected and if not why not? And can more distinctive roles and responsibilities be carved out for the Deputy Speakers to foster a more collegial culture and leadership team?

The Speaker might also benefit from the establishment of a permanent Rules Review Committee. The Standing Orders have been formally reviewed only six times since 1945, and only once at the behest of the House (the Clerk) rather than ministers. When new legislation has implications for procedure – as the vote of no confidence provisions in the Fixed Term Parliament Act do – there should be a mechanism for the House to address this in a timely way following Royal Assent. Failure to do so raises the prospect of the Speaker someday being exposed, asked to make up rules on the hoof in a highly charged political atmosphere. 

Following the example of the Lord Speaker’s Advisory Groups, a cross-party forum, perhaps even a bi-cameral one, might also be established under the Speaker’s aegis to facilitate consideration of long-term challenges such as post-Brexit arrangements, a public engagement vision for R&R, and the strengthening of inter-parliamentary relations.

Ruth Fox is Director of the Hansard Society