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). Continue reading

The Good Parliament: it is about more than breastfeeding and trans-toilets

sarah childs

In a new report, based on the best part of a year spent embedded in the Palace of Westminster, Sarah Childs makes recommendations for how the House of Commons can meet the international standard of a ‘truly representative, transparent, accountable and effective’ parliament. Here, she summarises the report and responds to media coverage that has focused on a small number of recommendations and lacked nuance.

Lots of people have to plenty to say about what is wrong with the UK parliament. Many do so at some distance from the Palace of Westminster. The Good Parliament report, launched on 20 July, is the culmination of a year working intimately with members and with House officials: its 43 recommendations are guided by this experience and expertise and offer a ‘menu of reforms’ that when implemented would meet the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s gender sensitive parliament status. Indeed, the report goes beyond this approach in developing and setting out proposals to deliver a diversity sensitive parliament.

The easy option would have been to avoid issues that the media would inevitably run with: breastfeeding and trans-toilets. If The Good Parliament report had two fewer recommendations, and note breastfeeding was part of larger recommendation regarding maternity and paternity leave, maybe the media coverage would have been more diverse and substantial. Some might have addressed the recommendation that the House make more information available to the public detailing what it is that MPs do. Others might have supported the recommendation that parliament collect more systematic data on the diversity, or rather homogeneity, of select committee witnesses. Yet others might have agreed that as the Palace of Westminster is repaired over the coming years that its buildings are made more disability friendly, or that the Women and Equalities Committee – which this week celebrated its first anniversary – should be made permanent.

Yet, as independent research it would have been academically remiss to ignore certain areas of debate simply to avoid ruffling a few feathers. From the very start The Good Parliament was designed to provide as comprehensive a set of recommendations as possible. It would show the Commons how it could meet the international democratic standard of a ‘truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective’ parliament. The UK House of Commons currently falls a long way short of meeting the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s norm of a gender sensitive parliament. Despite some important changes over the last decade or so, the Commons’ membership remains disproportionately elite, white and male whilst its infrastructure and culture continue to reflect the preferences of those members who have historically populated it.

Continue reading