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Speaker to Speaker: Lord McFall and Sir Lindsay Hoyle talk about their close working relationship

Speaker to Speaker: Lord McFall and Sir Lindsay Hoyle talk about their close working relationship

(Image | Baldo Sciacca)

10 min read

In a rare joint interview, Speakers Lord McFall and Sir Lindsay Hoyle talk about their close working relationship, plans for restoration, and recognising the importance of Parliament’s people. By Rosa Prince. Photography by Baldo Sciacca.

Parliament is about its people, not its buildings; the people who work within it and the people they work for – the electorate. This is the firm conviction of both our current Speakers, Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Lord McFall of Alcluith, representing the Commons and Lords respectively.

It is a theme they return to again and again – and it forms the backdrop to their participation in The House magazine’s Parliament’s People Awards, a celebration of those who work behind the scenes to keep our democracy running, making a contribution every bit as valuable, the Speakers believe, as that of more high-profile MPs and peers.

This year, for the first time, Sir Lindsay and Lord McFall will each judge a Speaker’s Award to be presented to the individual or team which has provided the Commons or Lords with exemplary service.

The winners will be announced at a ceremony later this month, along with the other awards for excellence among those who work in and for Parliament or parliamentarians.

Sir Lindsay has been a judge of the People’s Parliament Awards since becoming Speaker in 2019. He says his participation is important, because of his deep appreciation for those who work alongside him. “Staff matter to me,” he says. “Whether it’s Commons’ staff, whether it’s MPs’ staff; everybody who works here, the press, it doesn’t matter who – this is a village.

“The awards are amazing. It’s about recognition. We have great people in this House [and] I’ve got to say what a tremendous job they do.”

For Lord McFall, the last two years have proved a test for Parliament’s staff – one they rose to admirably. Prior to becoming Lord Speaker in May 2021, he was the senior deputy speaker when the pandemic hit.

“It was an unprecedented situation,” he says. “Everything was turned on its head. And we had to think, how do we keep Parliament going?

“We had the hybrid House established, voting remotely and engaged. It’s thought the House of Lords, given [its] older population, is maybe a bit behind in technology. But we cracked it in the House of Lords. And we cracked it because of the people there.”

They wear it lightly, but both men are aware of the historic nature of their stewardship, as the Speakers who oversaw the transition to the hybrid and remote Parliament during the pandemic. And history is in the air again on the day we meet, as they prepare for Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky’s extraordinary address via video link to the House of Commons.

This was another example of the importance of people – the words of one man bringing home to his British political counterparts the full horror of the Russian attack.

Even three years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine such a scene – a besieged leader speaking from a war zone; MPs sharing headsets like 1980s teenagers with a Walkman to catch the translation, gripped by the words of our national heroes William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill spoken in a strange tongue and given striking modernity and relevance in the current context.

In the Peers’ Gallery, members of the Lords, the Lord Speaker among them, watched on in greater numbers than had ever before gathered in Commons’ history. Several of those present were in tears.

To host history requires organisation – and flexibility. Sir Lindsay reveals his office was contacted by Zelensky’s people only 24 hours before the address, necessitating a scramble to set up the link and – the hardest task – gathering sufficient headsets for parliamentarians to listen to the simultaneous translation.

It is a rare happy by-product of the pandemic and the transition to the hybrid Parliament that everyone in Westminster is now accustomed to remote proceedings; but the House authorities have acquired a new nimbleness of thought and can-do attitude to problem solving. Centuries of tradition and custom did not fall away overnight, but have, in the Commons Speaker’s view, been supplemented by a fresh openness to new ways of working.

“The House worked on 750 years of history. And the pandemic proved that 750 years of history could be changed within 48 hours,” Sir Lindsay says.

“The staff here are amazing, they made it happen. People said to me, ‘You can’t do this’. We did it.

“It is ground-breaking – it’s about [sending] a clear message of support; unity of the two Houses, a unity with the president of Ukraine.”

It’s the ultimate accolade that I could have been given. History is there – and we’re making history.

Lord McFall says the Zelensky broadcast highlights how Parliament is beginning to turn outwards. “Coming from Scotland, Lindsay coming from Lancashire, at times Westminster can feel remote,” he says. “Devolution is on the agenda [of] everyone, including the government at the moment.

“And one of the things I hope to do more, and Lindsay is doing, is taking Parliament out [of] London, and ensuring it’s a UK institution; but, as well as that, to engage globally.

“Rather than being London-centric, there’s a global dimension to this. That reaching out is a good message, nationally and internationally.”

The two Speakers are old friends, having served alongside each other in the Commons from 1997, when Sir Lindsay became MP for Chorley, until 2010, when the then-John McFall stood down as MP for West Dunbartonshire (he was first elected for Dunbarton in 1987 before the constituency boundaries were redrawn).

They have much in common, as working-class lads from towns both geographically and, perhaps, mentally a long way from Westminster.

“It’s a great working relationship,” Sir Lindsay says. “And that’s important, because, in the end, it’s one Palace.”

Lord McFall agrees: “This is a huge institution, it’s a very complex institution. And our role is managing that… and facilitating individuals’ wishes.

“For us to have these channels of communication and that intelligence gathering is absolutely important.”

As the unelected chamber, the Lords currently finds itself at the centre of some of the more heated discussions around democratic legitimacy. This has crystalised since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with calls for the press mogul Lord Lebedev, who was ennobled by Boris Johnson in November 2020, allegedly against the advice of the security services, to be ejected from the Lords.

Lord McFall says the Prime Minister has yet to meet with him to discuss his call for the recommendations of the House of Lords Appointments Committee (which considers candidates for the Upper Chamber) to be made binding – at the moment it is merely an advisory body – saying the matter remains “absolutely on the agenda”.

He adds: “That is really important because people, globally, have lost faith in politics. But as you can see from this catastrophe we have in Ukraine, politics is the only hope.

“People that come into the Lords have to show they merit [it], that they are going to undertake certain work, and that they are going to have added value.”

Lord McFall is sympathetic to those such as his former Labour colleague Lord Grocott, who are campaigning to end the system of hereditary peerages, and particularly the by-elections held to replace a hereditary peer who dies or retires, in which both electorate and elected are almost exclusively male, white and Conservative.

Describing the hereditary by-elections as “anachronistic,” he adds: “That has to change. We have over 200 women in the House of Lords at the moment. We’ve got to keep pushing. We’ve got to have a more diverse element in the Lords. For too long, there was exceptionalism at Westminster.”

And is that view of the exceptionalism of Parliament holding back attempts at the restoration and renewal of the Palace? In recent weeks the Commissions of both the Commons and the Lords have overturned the sponsor body’s plans for a decant out of the building while work everyone agrees is desperately needed is carried out.

With the project plunged into confusion and stasis, Sir Lindsay says he is determined to push on with necessary work right away rather than waiting for the decade proposed by the official Restoration and Renewal project, a delay he describes as a “tragedy”.

This summer, an impact study will be carried out, to determine what work needs to be done.

“My belief is, while others are arguing and falling out [over] what we should or shouldn’t do, myself and John are just pushing ahead with the work.

“The House still doesn’t know what needs to be done. Something has failed us, to have all these people involved and still not be able to say what needs to be done. There’s something missing.

“I’m going to make this a safer and better place to work within in the meantime. We’ve got lumps of stone dropping off, so let’s repair the damn thing; we can’t wait 10 years. That’s silly.”

As with restoration and renewal, tackling accusations of bullying and harassment in Westminster presents the Speakers with the competing demands of people who view Parliament as their employer, with the duty of care that brings, and the powerful and revered institutions they occupy.

Half an hour after we speak, a report into the conduct of Sir Lindsay’s predecessor, John Bercow, is published, in which he is described as a liar and a bully.

The current holder of the highest office in the Commons says he cannot comment on the findings of Sir Stephen Irwin into Bercow’s appeal against complaints brought by three members of his staff, but says he is aware of flaws in the current system.

And no matter how special Parliament is, he insists: “There is no place for bullying, there is no place for harassment.

“I want us to be unique, I want us to be the exceptional employer. I want a happy building; I want happy relationships.”

Adding that Parliament must become “a shining example of what a workplace should be”, he says of calls to reform the current Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme: “Obviously, you’ve got to do the right thing, you don’t want to cut corners, [but] it’s got to be speeded up.

“I do believe the number of cases will drop… in which case, then you’re not being stretched… and they will be looked at, at once.”

Lord McFall adds the Lords is taking a proactive stance on changing the environment for staff, with a steering group, including both employees and peers, engaging in improving understanding.

We’re one family. For too long there seemed to be a separation, whether it was MPs and staff or peers and staff.

“For me, two key words are kindness and respect,” he adds. “If we fall below that, there’s something wrong.

“We’re one family. For too long there seemed to be a separation, whether it was MPs and staff or peers and staff.”

As they head off to their next meeting, I ask if they feel lucky or unlucky to have become Speaker during such tumultuous times.

Lord McFall says: “This job is a huge privilege, it’s a wonderful privilege. And I want to give my best. So we take the fortunes as the good fortunes of life and rejoice in them.”

Sir Lindsay feels the same way: “It’s an absolute privilege to be Speaker, whatever is thrown at you, that’s why you take the job on.

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