February 2, 2012

The House of Commons – On the Road to Recovery

The Speaker addresses students, staff and sixth formers at Birmingham University.

Thank you very much indeed for that introduction. It is an enormous privilege to be with you this evening. It is also a pleasure to be talking to such a positive title.

If I had stood here precisely three years ago – February 2, 2009 – and sought to make the case that I will outline tonight, it would have been laughable in at least two respects: the first is that I was not then Speaker of the House of Commons but a humble backbencher so my credentials for offering such an argument would have been contestable to put it mildly and, secondly, very few people would have considered the assertion that I wanted to convey to be credible. Even if I had been invited here two years ago, on February 2, 2010, after my election as Speaker but with the House of Commons still desperately seeking to extract itself from the mire of the expenses scandal and spluttering its way in an extremely partisan fashion towards a general election, the proposition that it was on the brink of a revival would have seemed optimistic. Such a notion might have been deemed comparable with the fabled “dead cat bounce” during stock market crashes when shares lift a little after a considerable fall before settling at a much lower level. And even if I had chanced my arm with this concept precisely 12 months ago, February 2, 2011, it might have seemed a little less daring but still ran the risk of appearing rather reckless. The safer argument to have made, albeit with a box of Kleenex as well as a glass of water on the lectern, would be that the House of Commons was and is in remorseless decline and would almost certainly continue in that march towards irrelevance. That temptation would have been reinforced by the fact that February 2nd is, apart from Candlemas, also Groundhog Day, immortalised in the film of the same name.

I am, nevertheless, confident that the House of Commons to be seen today is a much more consequential actor than it was in the last Parliament and many previous parliaments as well. I am also of the opinion that this is not solely due to the absence of a single majority party, although this has doubtless been an important element in the cocktail of change that I will come to later. That change has been noted widely across the media, with commentators from outlets as diverse as the BBC and Sky, The Financial Times, The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and even, I am told, writers in The Sun, noting that the House of Commons has become a more important political institution and that MPs today are a more assertive breed than they had been in very recent memory. The same is true for the leading lights in the political blogosphere. That such opinions are being expressed does not, I should state straight away, of itself provide compelling proof for my proposition. I have had quite enough personal undulations with the Fourth Estate to appreciate that totally rigorous intellectual consistency is not always its most striking feature. Yet what is being said in this respect, combined with learned academic opinion and by distinguished organisations such as the Hansard Society and the Institute for Government, and, frankly, my own observations sitting in the chair and overseeing question times and debates, reinforces this impression. I think it would be a pretty mean-spirited observer of British politics who did not concede that something has changed at Westminster and that the House of Commons has acquired stronger foundations in the past twenty months or so. The key questions to be addressed tonight are: what has caused that change and can this momentum be maintained in future?

Before addressing these crucial questions I want to put the supposed “decline” of the House of Commons in perspective. In a number of respects, analysts have been too willing to bury Parliament when the alleged corpse was still perfectly capable of breathing. I think it is worthwhile outlining some reasons why the Private Frazer approach to the study of the House of Commons – “we’re doomed, doomed, I tell you” – was never entirely accurate.

The first is that the much-heralded “Golden Age” of the House of Commons was, in truth, somewhat tarnished. These halcyon days occurred between the passage of the Great Reform Act in 1832 and the second Reform Act in 1867 when administrations often fell in mid-term as a result of parliamentary actions and legislation was regularly defeated. While this might sound wonderful – especially to enthusiasts of post-war Italian Government – a number of mitigating circumstances should be considered. The first is that this was a House of Commons which remained so outrageously undemocratic that meaningful political parties had yet to establish themselves or to be considered necessary. The vast majority of the adult male population (let alone their female counterparts) were still without the franchise. Very large numbers of seats were uncontested at elections. Where competition did take place it was within the confines of a process in which not only was the secret ballot yet to be introduced but a list of who had voted for whom was published and carefully read after polling day.

Putting these inconveniences to one side, the Golden Age still looks less than 24-carat. The extent of legislative independence has to be tempered by the realisation that the vast majority of legislation then was private (that is, local and personal, such as authorising the building of a railway), not public in nature, and the number of defeats on votes fundamental to the standing of the government of the day should not be exaggerated. One study suggests that the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979 saw as many defeats for ministers as was true in the 1864-1869 era. The House of Commons in the 1860s had to share authority about equally with a House of Lords which was composed of hereditary peers who wielded an absolute veto in most circumstances. This Golden Age was not even one in which the media were an irrelevance to politicians. It was during exactly this period when it was asserted, accurately, that “The Times has made many ministries”. In short, if I were to make a speech here tonight in which I put forward my determination to establish a new “Golden Age” for the House of Commons to be achieved by withdrawing the franchise from about three-quarters of the electorate and abolishing the Life Peerages Act 1958 I suspect not only would the audience be mortified but the men and women in grey suits would be present in Speaker’s House within 24 hours to tell me that my political time was up, closely followed by men and women in white coats to declare that a long rest was urgently required.

My second point is that it was never the case that the House of Commons declined consistently from the “virtuous” peak of the 1850s to the absolute nadir of 2009 when the Daily Telegraph’s expenses expose reduced MPs to a status somewhere between drug dealers and estate agents. In fact, I think the historian could make a case that in a way rock bottom was reached in the 1950s. That decade saw the high-point of class voting in Britain with 95% of the public backing the Conservative or Labour candidate and almost uniform movement across seats at elections. There were exceedingly few examples where anything that an individual MP did in his (or very occasionally her) constituency influenced their personal vote and prospects one iota.

Parliament then was reported in the elite press but barely covered at all in the fast-emerging medium of television due to a self-imposed “14-day rule” whereby the BBC agreed not to discuss anything which was due to be debated in Parliament in the next fortnight, an astonishing act of censorship which collapsed during the Suez Crisis. Party discipline in the House of Commons was staggeringly robust. There were two sessions of the House in the 1950s when not a single Conservative MP voted against the party whip on any issue whatsoever, while the rare revolt among the ranks of the parliamentary Labour Party was almost always over foreign and defence matters and not domestic questions. The specialist select committees which empowered back-benchers so dramatically were still twenty years in the future. MPs received an average of 12-20 letters a week and were paid the princely sum of ¬£1,000 per year which accounting for the average rise in wages over the previous four decades meant they were remunerated less in comparative terms than when the salary for MPs was first inaugurated at ¬£400 per annum in 1911. Meanwhile, down the corridor at the House of Lords, the institution had been so emasculated by the Parliament Act 1949, which further qualified its veto power, that while the membership of the chamber theoretically exceeded 800 persons, it was hard to muster more than 60 to 100 at any sitting and the nominal “revising chamber” seldom met for more than three hours a day, three days a week. It was this atrophy that led Harold Macmillan to launch life peerages as a drastic final attempt to save the Upper House from Dodo status. Macmillan memorably insisted that the 1950s were the “never had it so good” days for the average British consumer. It was the absolute opposite outcome for the House of Commons.

Finally, and reinforcing the argument I have just made, not every aspect of the House of Commons was in decline during the first decade of this century. If the impact of the House is purely to be considered in terms of legislative scrutiny and defeats inflicted on ministers, then the record was and is a rather patchy one. Surely, however, this is far too narrow a definition. The House of Commons of 2009 was still sitting for considerably more days than is the norm in western democracies, MPs were dealing with vast amounts of constituency correspondence, handling ever greater numbers of e-mails, and serving on extremely lively select committees. We had not been reduced to the status of the appendix of the body politic even if it sometimes did feel like that. The parliaments of 2001-2005 and 2005-2010 had witnessed real drama in the voting lobbies. Much of the activity of parliament had been eclipsed by the media with inquisitions by Today programme interviewers sometimes seeming to have supplanted inquisition by parliamentarians. But the House of Commons was not dead, or even resting in the words of the legendary Parrot Sketch. If it had been then the recent revival would have been impossible. It was, however, in danger of being sidelined, of becoming in Bagehot’s elegant phrase, a “dignified” rather than an “efficient” part of the constitution and something had to happen to reverse this situation. It has happened.

Three major changes best explain the new authority witnessed in the House of Commons.

The first is the infusion of new blood among its membership. The 2010 elections brought 227 new MPs to Westminster. Such a large freshman class, to borrow an American expression, was bound to have an impact of some sort but not necessarily on the scale that it has managed. The “Class of 2010” is distinctive because it involved a high level of turnout in both the Conservative and Labour parties (unlike 1997 for example, when I came into the House, when the new members were overwhelmingly on Labour’s benches), it has involved much greater diversity in gender, race and sexual orientation and again within both major parties and, I think I can state without any fear of false flattery, that the quality of people is exceptional and again this is true for the Opposition side as well as the Government benches.

We have been really fortunate in that regard and should be eternally thankful for it. I shudder to think what would have happened if the expenses disaster had taken place in 2006 rather than 2009 as it is reasonable to conclude that a number of people who chose to become candidates in the last parliament and then became MPs in this one might have decided to stick with their original career choice if the meltdown at Westminster had occurred earlier. As it stands, we have been blessed with a new cohort of MPs, highly savvy in the use of modern technology, determined to make an impact, a little older and thus perhaps a shade wiser than the slightly larger class of 1997 (myself included) and they have been a great asset. The novelty of coalition has further upended the rules of the game as a more subtle form of politics is required to ensure internal harmony and discipline. It has also meant, to be blunt, that the number of ministerial posts likely to become open to new MPs in mid-term has diminished and thus provided a further inducement to develop their careers in other ways.

The second element has been a series of sweeping rule changes adopted by the House in March 2010 amid almost no publicity at all but which have been profound in their impact. I would like to highlight two of these here before referring to a third a little later. The most obvious of these is that Select Committee chairs are now elected by a secret ballot of the whole of the House of Commons rather than vetted by the various Whips beforehand and the membership of select committees is chosen by a secret ballot of each party’s MPs rather than granted as a reward by those in charge of party discipline. To assert that this has entrenched institutional independence would be an enormous understatement. It has been a Great Leap Forward for Select Committees and has allowed, for example, the Treasury Select Committee to be conceded a veto over appointments to the Office of Budget Responsibility (an intriguing precedent) and for the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport to assume centre stage in the investigation into News International and telephone hacking. To this has been added the invention of a Backbench Business Committee, created and elected for the first time in 2010, which now ensures that a proportion of the chamber time formerly devoted to matters of concern to backbenchers is now under their control. This has forced debates and votes to occur on questions which might otherwise have been killed off quietly. The change has been as invaluable to backbenchers as it has been inconvenient to the government.

The third aspect has been procedural and this is the only one where I seek a modest degree of personal credit. The Urgent Question is an interesting parliamentary device by which any Member can ask the Speaker to permit a question to be put to the relevant department that morning or afternoon and if granted the department concerned must provide a minister. It enables matters which are highly topical to be addressed straight away in the chamber. In the twelve months prior to my election to the chair precisely two Urgent Questions had been allowed. Unsurprisingly, MPs had all but abandoned asking them. Since June 2009, I have permitted 86 Urgent Questions and while there are probably voodoo dolls of me all over Whitehall as a consequence, not least in the possession of the poor souls who serve as Diary Secretaries to Ministers, I do not apologise for restoring this instrument of scrutiny. I believe the evidence demonstrates that it has helped revive the standing of the House by demonstrating its relevance.

Can this momentum be maintained or is it is a fluke which depends on a hung parliament? I am cautiously confident that we are at the beginning rather than the end of this process.

Again, there are three reasons behind this possibly rather bold assertion.

The first is that I suspect the Class of 2010 will have a permanent impact on the culture of the House of Commons much as the so-called “Watergate” generation of congressmen elected to the House of Representatives in 1974 sent shockwaves through the old power structures of that chamber such that the old order could never be restored properly. These new MPs are establishing themselves as a model for the next set of candidates on all sides. They have rapidly emerged as independent political entrepreneurs and proud of the fact.

The second is that the rule changes embraced in 2010 have another further step to travel. The House agreed then that it favoured the creation of a House Business Committee to take charge of the business of the chamber which has hitherto been deemed “government time” rather than have it controlled by the somewhat mysterious process of the “usual channels”, namely sorted out in private by the Whipping fraternity. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement reached after the 2010 election committed the Government to bring forward proposals for a House Business Committee during the third year of this Parliament and I have been delighted to hear both Sir George Young, the Leader of the House of Commons and a serious parliamentary reformer, and David Heath, his Liberal Democrat deputy and an equally committed moderniser, reaffirm this commitment to MPs in recent months.

Finally, while I remain Speaker of the House there is no chance that the Urgent Question will go into mothballs. And while I am sure my successors will do many things differently to me, as they should, I doubt they will want to deprive themselves or the House of this weapon.

In conclusion, there are sound reasons to believe that the House of Commons is reviving and can revive further. I hope you agree that this should be applauded and encouraged. Not only is this a positive development for the House but it should make for better government and for an enhanced democracy. It is a decidedly dangerous activity these days to quote Enoch Powell approvingly, even in the West Midlands, but on this subject I think I can do so. Some thirty years ago, Powell argued that Parliament should be “the means by which the people speak to government and government speak to the people”. It would be hyperbole for me to imply that we have achieved such an ideal but at least the conversation is once again moving in that direction. By now you have surely heard enough of me. It is time for me to hear from you through questions and thank you very much indeed for listening to me.

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