The Good Parliament: what kind of Speaker do we need?

image_preview.jpgIt has been three years since The Good Parliament report made its recommendations on how to make parliament more diversity sensitive. Since then, the Cox report in the Commons has emphasised that reform of parliament and its internal processes remains necessary. In this post, the author of The Good Parliament, Sarah Childs, examines how the next Speaker could improve upon the work of their predecessor.

The next Speaker of the House of Commons will be elected on 4 November. The procedure involves a secret ballot of MPs, with successive ballots ‘until either a candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, or only one candidate remains’. The election comes at a time of political and, possibly institutional, crisis. Parliament is beset by swirling questions about its constitutional role and about what it means to hold elected office in the UK. On this blog, Dr Mark Bennister has drawn attention to the context, one marked by the politics of Brexit, parliamentary sovereignty, Speaker impartiality, institutional trust, backbenchers’ ‘rights’, and the building’s restoration and renewal. The question of the bullying and harassment of staff on the parliamentary estate and the Commons’ wider culture are also rightly part of this. 

The culture of the Commons was one of the three dimensions identified in The Good Parliament, a report published back in 2016. While only looking at Members, the report laid bare the extensiveness of diversity insensitivities at Westminster. Together with redressing inequalities of participation in the House and discriminatory and exclusionary parliamentary infrastructure, the report identified 43 recommendations that would transform the Commons into the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ‘truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective parliament’.

Much has been achieved since then via the Speaker’s Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, which was set up and chaired by John Bercow. It comprised male and female MPs with an established interest in equalities from across the parties, and included longstanding and newer MPs. Some dozen recommendations have been implemented in full, with another good handful still in train. Its most high profile successes include in 2017 the permanent establishment of the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC), which is chaired by Maria Miller, and in 2019 – working with the Mother of the House, Harriet Harman – the introduction of proxy voting for MPs on baby leave. The new EU SI Committee is required to be gender balanced because of an amendment tabled by members of the Reference Group; the diversity of Committee witnesses is now monitored by the administration and is a key concern of the Liaison Committee; and in a first for an established democracy, the IPU undertook a Gender Sensitive Parliament Audit (on which WEC was taking evidence at the time of prorogation).

The new Speaker will play a critical role in the trajectory of progress towards a diversity sensitive House, in both symbolic and substantive terms. They can personally provide support by what they say and how they act; and there are some recommendations directed at the Speaker that are yet to be introduced or require ongoing action. But the Speaker can only do so much. What was so effective about the Reference Group was that it brought together MPs supported by the House administration to campaign and undertake parliamentary interventions that were transformative. That The Good Parliament’s recommendations were made to 12 distinct parliamentary actors and parliamentary institutions reinforces the recent evidence given by John Benger, Clerk of the House, noting the lack of a single person or institution responsible for delivering on its agenda.

Institutional change never just happens. New rules must be introduced and norms and conventions embedded. The next Speaker will be critical in either extending the diversity sensitivity of the Commons or for letting the good that the Reference Group achieved fall back. Will all candidates sign up to the principle of a diversity sensitive parliament? Will they put their name and institutional resources behind a wider Commons commitment to achieve lasting, indeed transformative, change? On 10 October the Institute for Government (IFG) will host Henry Bellingham, Chris Bryant, Harriet Harman, Meg Hillier, Eleanor Laing and Shailesh Vara, all of whom are standing to be Speaker. It has provided a handy explainer on how they might make their pitch to fellow MPs. With the IFG’s Deputy Director, Dr Hannah White, a leading player in the House’s #metoo moment, expect the question of the bullying and harassment of staff on the parliamentary estate and the Commons’ wider culture to be addressed. This is absolutely right.

This moment in parliament’s history is critical. How parliament works – and how it can work better – is contested. Infrastructure wise, it should be inconceivable to undertake Restoration and Renewal without a commitment to make its buildings inclusive; nor is it likely that bullying and harassment of staff will end without adopting a holistic and systematic approach, one characterised by equality, and a fully independent means of investigation of allegations. Most of the candidates have already signed up to the last of these. The candidates will need to factor in vested interests within the House. There are some parliamentary actors who reject the agenda of gender and diversity sensitivity parliaments, institutional resistance driven by executive/legislative relations, government/opposition and inter-party competition, as well as political and personal rivalries.

When I wrote TGP I purposively avoided ranking the recommendations – it should be up to the institution to take responsibility for establishing its priorities. The 2016–18 Speaker’s Reference Group had theirs, and I would like to think that a new Speaker and any new Reference Group would soon come up with what they felt should be done, and, as importantly, how. If they want any advice – if they want a parliament that is open to those MPs and staff with family commitments and if they want a parliament that minimises the opportunities for bullying and harassment – I would point to recommendations that speak both to the culture of the House and the effects of Brexit politics on the working conditions of the institution:

  • Recommendation 29. Ensure that the House rules, structures, institutions, nomenclature and culture are diversity sensitive and inclusionary.
  • Recommendation 31. Introduce greater predictability in the scheduling of House Business.
  • Recommendation 32. Review the establishment of a Division Time.
  • Recommendation 33. Trial sitting hours of the House based around ‘normal business hours’.

These reforms will not only enable MPs to make the most effective use of their time at Westminster and know when they will be back in the constituency and with their families, but parliamentary staff will be able to better balance their work/life commitments too. As with most diversity-sensitive reforms, these steps will also increase efficiency; not sitting late into the night should deliver cost savings and reduce opportunity costs. In becoming more professional as an institution in these ways, improvements in the physical and mental health of MPs and staff – not least in respect of the use of alcohol and the effects of late nights – could be profound. Moreover, parliamentary culture would almost certainly shift as a consequence of such structural changes. The Commons would be more a place of representative and inclusive work and much less the all-encompassing, exclusive, and unpredictable ‘Westminster Village’.

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About the author

Sarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender at Birkbeck, University of London and author of The Good Parliament.