19 January 2011

There is always a need for balance between the right of an elected government to get its business through and effective scrutiny. Yesterday the Speaker of the House of Commons set out an achievable agenda for change around Balfour’s principle that "democracy is government by explanation".

John Bercow has been very active in his year and a half as Speaker of the Commons in leading a debate on strengthening the House - though his efforts have got much less public and media attention than the controversies he has become embroiled in with some, mainly Conservative, MPs.

Far more than his predecessors as Speaker, he has put himself at the head of attempts to reform Commons procedures in order to enhance the role of backbench MPs and to give the legislature a stronger voice in relation to the executive. And much is happening away from media attention. But this is not just a matter for Westminster, Whitehall also has much to learn, and to change.

The Speaker's changes to date

Mr Bercow can fairly claim to have done his bit, notably through the revival of the Urgent Question whereby ministers have to answer a highly topical question submitted on the day by an MP.

The number awarded has risen by two in the 12 months before he became Speaker to 22 in his first year in office. This, he rightly argues, has made the House "a more relevant and unpredictable place" and has assisted what he calls "scrutiny by examination, not merely via observation".

In other areas too, the Commons is changing. There is already an independent minded backbench business committee which has given time for substantive motions to be put forward by backbench MPs which have been awkward for the Government, as well as new opportunities for select committee reports to be presented to the House. Mr Bercow argued that over time select committees would gain "greater prominence on the parliamentary stage".

Mr Bercow was typically candid in answers to 40 minutes of questions: about, for example:

  • the impact of reducing the number of MPs ( he is no fan of the slogan "cutting the cost of politics")
  • the balance between life as a backbencher
  • the lure of frontbench service.

In many ways he is an unusual Speaker, still in the prime of his political life, not content, and sometimes impatient, with the dignified aspects of his office, and full of ideas and energy to strengthen the Commons and to improve its public standing.

How legislation could be scrutinised better

But there is a long way to go, notably in the scrutiny of legislation, as discussed in a Hansard Society report, Making Better Law, which Mr Bercow described as a comprehensive agenda for change. He argued that "as a matter of broad principle, it would be commendable if a broad majority of bills started life as drafts".

That is easier said than done, especially as in the first session of an incoming new government, ministers are keen to press on with legislation. But, already, too many bills are being rushed through.

More bills could be split at committee stage so that major issues are thrashed out on the floor of the House, with the details considered in a committee away from the chamber, as already happens with the annual Finance Bill. More bills, perhaps even a clear majority, should be referred to a select committee before second reading.

Increasing understanding between MPs and civil servants

Mr Bercow also laid down a challenge to Whitehall. He argued that "we would all agree that the practical knowledge of Parliament amongst civil servants has been declining for some time" — largely he suggested  because at the most senior ranks of the Civil Service this is not seen as sufficiently important.

This tallies with the complaints of ministers about an ignorance of, and a reluctance to acknowledge the importance of, Parliament in their private offices, and among officials.

Ministers often acknowledge that they should spend more time with MPs than at yet another meeting with a trade association or lobbying group. At the same time, Mr Bercow warned of the dangers that "as cold winds blow (on spending), how do we ensure that providing Parliament with what it needs for scrutiny on behalf of the citizen and the taxpayer is a high enough priority for Government?"

There is big scope for increasing understanding. As Mr Bercow argued: "An official who understands what happens on the other side of the road can do her or his job better, be more effective and avoid parliamentary cock-ups and unnecessary exposure of ministers".

But this works both ways: MPs also need to show a better understanding of the complexities of how government works, rather than, as still happens too often at select committee hearings, indulging in populist point scoring against senior civil servants.


To the apolitical citizen, I suggest that the aphorism: "Government by Explanation" carries a deeply questionable'charge' - not atypical of Westminster.

It sits 'well' with the duplicity inherant in General Electioneering, when a candidate wears a rosette but does not explain the 'niceties' of power distribution (varying with time and circumstance) between the two entities (nor asks the voter if they will be voting 'rosette' or 'rosette stand'.