Harriet Harman: I have the experience and the resilience to steer the House through this turbulent time
Writing ahead of The House magazine’s Speaker Hustings, Harriet Harman says the next Speaker needs experience, resilience and "a proven track record of reform"
In all my decades in the House I have never seen our parliamentary democracy facing such great challenge.
- Public opinion of Parliament ranges from dismay to contempt
- The chamber is more fractious and unruly than ever
- Relations between Parliament and the Government are strained to breaking point
- MPs are routinely abused and threatened
I believe that if Parliament does not have confidence in itself, and cannot command the confidence of the public, it leaves a democratic deficit and a vacuum. We have a difficult job to do on both fronts. This will be the context in which the next Speaker takes the chair and will frame the immediate task for that speakership.
The first priority for the Speaker must be to always command confidence across the House and act fairly. I have had the benefit of working across all the parties when I served as Leader of the House from 2007-2010. I maintained the confidence of the House and at no time during those years was there ever even an accusation that I had acted in a partisan way. When I was Solicitor General between 2001-2005, I had to take an oath of office that I would act only in the public interest and set party and government considerations aside. Again, there was never even a suggestion that I had strayed from that.
But it’s not enough for the Speaker to have a strong record of acting fairly, perception matters too. And the problem is that the Speaker exercises their powers without checks and balances and without transparency. There needs to be reform of the Speaker’s powers to build in greater accountability to the House for controversial decisions.
The political turbulence which prevails currently will make the task of the next Speaker very demanding. Addressing the mistrust which hangs over the office, the demands of the Restoration and Renewal programme, the ill-feeling among House staff – all will require a Speaker who has the experience and resilience that I have demonstrated.
The Government has a job to do and the Speaker must enable it to discharge its responsibilities. Having served in the Cabinet I understand that. But I will also be able to see when the Government is treating Parliament with disrespect and I will not allow that.
The next Speaker needs to have a proven track record of reform, which I do. As Leader of the House I ended appointment for chairs of select committees and made them elected. I ended the unjustifiable pension provisions for the Speaker. I introduced the Backbench Business Committee and gave the House two weeks’ notice of Business rather than just four days. As a backbencher I led the campaign to change the hours of the House to stop routine sittings past midnight and, only this year, to bring in proxy voting this year.
In chairing proceedings, the Speaker needs to have dignity and grace and a strong sense of how the public see their Parliament. Strong feelings and robust debate are right and proper but must not be allowed to tip over into abuse, finger pointing and shouting down. I have never engaged in that I and would not allow it from the chair. I know that is the view of most of my parliamentary colleagues. The minority must not be able to disrupt or taint our proceedings – whether from the backbenches or the front benches.
Of course the Speaker must maintain a good relationship with the Government, particularly with the Leader of the House. But I am in no doubt that if it comes to a conflict between the Government and the House, as Speaker it would be my duty to ensure the will of the House prevails. That is the very basis for our parliamentary democracy.
Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell & Peckham