Lindsay Hoyle: “Everything I Never Envisaged The House Would Do: We Did All Of That”
Lindsay Hoyle | PA Images
Lindsay Hoyle’s first year as Speaker has seen some of the most radical changes in the House of Commons’ history, as Parliament grapples with Covid-19. As he marks his anniversary in the Chair he talks to Georgina Bailey about keeping our democracy functioning
Lindsay Hoyle is not doing the job he expected to do. “I’ve probably aged about 20 years,” he laughs. “No, it’s a fantastic job, absolutely no complaints about that.”
Wednesday 4 November marked a year for Hoyle in the Speaker’s chair. Elected at the end of a highly fractious few years in Parliament, his official platform was one focused on wellbeing, security, and accountability. Behind the scenes, many saw Hoyle as a stabiliser – the person to repair Parliament’s damaged reputation following bullying and harassment scandals, and the at times explosive relationship between his predecessor, Speaker John Bercow, and certain backbenchers and the government on Brexit.
Then Covid hit.
“The one thing that I was told is, 'change is very slow in the House of Commons'. One thing I didn't realise was, how quick we had to make things happen and how quick we had to make that change,” Hoyle says. “Everything I never envisaged the House would do: we did all of that.”
From the introduction of social distancing and call lists, the ‘Hybrid Parliament’, to the live broadcast of virtual select committees, the scale and rate of adaptation in Parliament is unprecedented. Cramped division lobbies have been swapped for parliamentary pass readers – after a brief flirtation with electronic remote voting and the ‘Rees-Mogg Conga’ which saw MPs queuing for an hour to vote, 63% of MPs are now voting via proxy.
Hoyle is clearly very proud of the work of his team throughout the pandemic, and he has been one of the loudest voices for prioritising Covid-security on the Estate. He has warned of the risk of MPs being “super spreaders”, taking the virus across the country as they travel between London and their constituencies – but it is a balancing act, he says.
“My approach is to keep the show on the road, to keep the House moving. Because in the end, I've got to make sure that the government can get its legislation through. I've also got to make sure that the Opposition can scrutinise.”
“What would the country think if it didn't have a parliament?” he asks. “It's about trying to make that in a safe, secure environment.”
With a second lockdown now in place in England, were there conversations about the return of a Hybrid Parliament, with the majority of MPs joining debates remotely?
“The more that we can do remotely, obviously, the safer parliament is – I think that's what the challenge is,” Hoyle reflects. “But in the end, I don't control the Chamber, [whether] we have virtual or not. That is a Government decision, that is a Leader of the House decision. They've decided that they don't want to go back to virtual.
“We do know it worked. And I respect that it's not my decision, so I have to respect the decision of others. So what I would say is: Yes, we could. No, we're not. So what else can we do to make this place safe?”
Does that mean that he agrees with the Leader of the House's decision?
“I think we'll leave it where I was,” he laughs. “Very good question. I don't want to fall out with everybody.”
Hoyle points to the other actions that have been taken – face coverings are encouraged when travelling around the Estate and staff rotas have changed. He also closed the bars when Tier 3 restrictions began to come into place in some constituencies: a decision that saw him dubbed Cromwell, after the last politician who attempted to ban alcohol in Parliament in the 17th century. “So be it,” Hoyle shrugs. “If that’s the title I take, I will take it.”
“I don't do it because I want to, I do it because it's the right thing to do.”
He is also asking MPs’ staff to work from home, after advice from Public Health England that the numbers of people on the Estate must come down.
“It is a hard decision to say to MPs, look you can't bring your staff on,” he concedes. “It’s good to see as many people as possible on the Estate. That's what makes the village tick.”
Hoyle also recognises that for many parliamentary staffers, their home environment may not necessarily be the best working conditions. Parliament has therefore opened up office spaces in other buildings close to the Estate for MPs’ staff to use if they are struggling or cannot effectively work from home – any MP whose staff may benefit is encouraged to get in touch with their Whips. “It really is tough looking at the staff and supporting them. So hopefully, we've done the right thing, making sure there is somewhere for them to go,” Hoyle says.
One brighter element of the new Commons arrangements has been Hoyle’s introductions for virtual contributors. Scottish and Welsh MPs appearing on the screens around the Chamber are often called in from “across the border”, while the Conservative MP for Harrow East-cum-inadvertent-pilot-impersonator, Bob Blackman’s appearances are the cue for a chuckle if Hoyle is in the chair. “I really do like Bob. And when he first came on, he really did look like he was landing that aircraft,” Hoyle laughs, “My ideal will be when Bob has the hat on – when it’s transport questions and he's got the airline hat.”
As well as lightening the mood in the Chamber, the quips have a second purpose, Hoyle explains – it buys time for the switching on of different sound systems, and for the screens to be connected to show the MP contributing virtually.
While the system is complex for Hoyle and the staff, and involves lots of jumping up, he says the increase in virtual contributions again lately “shows quite rightly that people are staying away and they are worried about their health”.
“My knees are worn out. So I think the next thing I'll be doing is claiming a new set of knees off the House.”
This House matters. If the House is sitting, the House should know first
Covid has posed other challenges for Hoyle – namely, the habit of government ministers making announcements in press conferences or via leaks to the media, rather than to the Commons. This culminated in a threat to have the health secretary, Matt Hancock in the Commons every day to answer Urgent Questions, and the Speaker accusing the Prime Minister of acting “presidential” in an interview with Times Radio in July.
While Hoyle says he was “very, very disappointed” in the behaviour of No 10 early on in the pandemic, he does think that things have improved since the summer. “We've got a really good understanding that if, obviously, we can't be here all the time, but if the House is sitting, the House should know first,” he says.
“I've been very outspoken about that. This House matters. Because in the end, including the Prime Minister we're all Members of Parliament to this House… [we’ve all] been elected by our constituents to serve this House.”
“So I would say that we have made big improvements on that. Is there more to do? Of course, there's always more to do.” He says he was “very disappointed” by the recent national lockdown leak, speaking to the Prime Minister and Jacob Rees-Mogg that day to get assurances. “Somebody's been rather naughty, I do agree on that.”
Once the leak investigation has concluded, “if it turns out to be a Member of Parliament, I believe that they should come to the House and apologise for being discourteous,” Hoyle says. “Also if it's somebody who is not in Parliament, maybe we should consider bringing them to the Bar of the House to apologise. That's not been done for a few years either.”
Hoyle also intervened with the government to extend the length of debate on the second lockdown measures originally scheduled for just 90 minutes – something he says would have unfairly limited contributions from around the country. “In the end, we got three hours. I might have preferred more, but I will settle. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Crucial to Hoyle is repairing Westminster’s “tarnished” reputation following the bullying and harassment scandal which rocked the last Parliament.
“I don't think this House, if I was to say to a member of the staff here, would you recommend working here, I don't believe they did. I don't believe they had the confidence in the House,” he reflects. His predecessor was one of those accused of bullying House staff, accusations he denies.
While things have improved somewhat, there is still some confusion about how the system should work. What then is the role of the Speaker in tackling bullying and harassment?
“The culture of the House is what I'm in charge of. It's about trying to develop a good working culture. But that's when I said genuinely, I want to make a difference. And the best way to make a difference is to listen to people, to talk to people,” Hoyle explains.
While Hoyle says he has an open door policy for those who wish to discuss bullying and harassment on the Parliamentary Estate, and is always happy to talk about how to improve the culture, he is also emphatic about the fully independent nature of the Independent Grievance and Complaints Scheme (ICGS), set up in July 2018.
“The IGCS is not under my control, it has nothing to do with me. And that's how it should be. It's got to be independent. It's got to be about complaints coming forward. I don't want to be seeing it, I don't want to be hearing it. I want people who have not got knowledge or understanding of the individuals concerned, it is complete independence.
“My concern is that staff in offices, whether it is the House or Members, felt that they had nowhere to turn. And hopefully I would like to believe they have somewhere to turn and that they will have confidence in the system we've set up.
“What I will say is that I believe the system we've set up, it's not the end. It needs to be reformed, reworked, relooked at all the time to make sure we're getting it right and working well with people who work here.”
Hoyle has also changed the makeup of the House of Commons Commission to include representatives of staff and trade unions, and make their voices heard. The Commission’s agendas and minutes are now published to improve accountability, and in the summer, the final recommendation of Dame Laura Cox’s report was implemented. Hoyle would encourage people to undertake the “Valuing Everyone” training, and share any feedback they may have to improve it.
In his own office, he has removed a lot of the formality and “rigmarole” – including the single file procession and announcement of deputy speakers, clerks and staff into the study of the Speaker that used to happen before their daily morning meeting.
“Do we need that? Who sees it? Nobody. So things like that have to change,” Hoyle explains. “I can pull my own chair, I don't need somebody to come and do it. When I walk in a room with the people I work with every day, they were jumping up. That's a bit embarrassing personally for me. Great, they have respect for the office, they have respect for me, and I appreciate it. But nobody else is seeing it. And we work as a team.”
As part of his wellbeing focus, Hoyle has introduced a GP service for everyone on the estate – and he would like to see what other medical support, such as diabetes testing, could be introduced. “That's a breakthrough. And that will continue to grow.” He’s also still very keen for daily rapid Covid testing for MPs and staff to be introduced – but only after NHS workers have the same.
Throughout the pandemic, Hoyle has continued his work on improving security – his first meeting of the day had been on the part-pedestrianisation of Parliament Square, which he believes would help combat the terror threat to the Estate.
As with much else of his work, he knows it won’t be done overnight – and that Covid will keep throwing up challenges.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle is the MP for Chorley and speaker of the House of Commons.