Murnaghan 6.05.12 Interview with John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons

May 06, 2012


DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Now the House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, has only been in his job for three years but he claims to have made more reforms to the House of Commons in that time than his predecessors over the last thirty. He is of course required to be completely impartial so rarely gives interviews but this week he has spoken exclusively to this programme. I wanted to kick off by reflecting on what it says about politics and engagement, last week’s local elections and the low turnout there, does that tell us something about the level of disillusion and disengagement amongst the public with politicians?

JOHN BERCOW: It is a persistent problem and it has been a problem of long standing. I don't think that people are disinterested or uninterested in politics, I think very often they are disengaged from the formal political process. To some extent they are suspicious or even despairing of formal politics as a means to give expression and effect to what they want. I think the expenses scandal inflicted reputational carnage on the House and although we’ve done the right thing, belatedly, there is a time lag between introducing new arrangements and having them accepted but I think that there is a wider dissatisfaction. It’s not just or mainly expenses, it’s that people feel partly that the parties are still quite similar and that perhaps there isn’t a huge choice and partly they feel, well I said what I wanted and I voted accordingly but I haven’t got what I wanted or what I voted for two years ago. My role is to be a facilitator of parliamentary opinion. I don’t take sides, I’m not on the side of the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats or of the Labour party or of any other party, I am if you like, Dermot, the leader of the good order and fair play party. My responsibility and privilege is to try to facilitate the expression of the widest possible range of political views that are represented in the House of Commons and I think I once said when I was asked, how would I like to be remembered, that I would like to be remembered as a Speaker who was the champion of backbenchers. I am looking to maximise opportunities for backbenchers which is sometimes frustrating to the government of the day.

DM: That’s what I was going to ask you because with that prime directive in your head then, so if the Executive and namely the Chief Executive, the Prime Minister, if they get upset about some of what you’re doing, if you are for instance calling the Prime Minister into the House to face an urgent question which, let’s be frank about it, he feels isn’t an urgent question, you say so be it, tough, you have to come?

JB: Well it is the responsibility of the Speaker to make a judgement about it so the short answer to your question is yes. I have very professional relations with the Prime Minister but our roles are different.

DM: I refer to that question last week about the Culture Secretary on Monday, it’s been described in the press of one of the lamest urgent questions in recent history and that some say there was no new information had emerged about the Culture Secretary.

JB: Well I would say two things in response to that. First of all a number of new things had emerged, Lord Justice Leveson had made clear the limits of his own judicial inquiry and had said well he wouldn’t be looking at, still less reaching a judgement on the conduct of a particular minister, so that was a relevant fact and I think the second relevant fact was that the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport had given evidence which had attracted very considerable attention, to the Public Accounts Committee, and that caused a great many Members of Parliament to want to return to the issue and to question either the Secretary of State or another very senior Minister, possibly even the Prime Minister, about the issues that had been thrown up by the observations of the Permanent Secretary. I have only one bias and that’s a bias in favour of Parliament, putting Parliament first, putting Parliament centre stage, putting Parliament where it ought to be.

DM: But in terms of that project, then the urgent question issue has become a useful tool, hasn’t it? A huge explosion under your tenure and will continue then I suppose from what we’re hearing.

JB: The UQ is really the new Prime Minister’s Question, it is a unique chance for a Member to seize national attention and to focus the attention of the House and of the government on that matter. The media have to report the fact that the scrutiny is taking place and they are in a sense obliged to report that it’s taking place not in a television studio but in the cockpit of the nation, the democratic chamber of the House of Commons, and I think to some extent it keeps Ministers honest and it reminds Ministers, very distinguished people, that whatever other duties they have, their first and overriding duty is to be accountable to the House of Commons.

DM: And it really annoys you, doesn’t it, when you mentioned the television studio, when important issues of policy are announced, drip fed through the media to the public before the House, before the chamber hears about it?

JB: When I saw that really significant parts, some might say most features of the Budget had been not just leaked but comprehensively trailed and chatted about by Ministers in advance, I thought to myself, well these matters must be very, very fully aired in the House and in the case of the pre-Budget report which was leaked on a very heavy scale, I thought well it’s important that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should respond very fully and at length to questions in the Chamber. Apart from anything else I was very keen to establish whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer had anything to say in the Chamber of the House of Commons that he hadn’t already said outside of it.

DM: How would you describe your relations with the Prime Minister?

JB: Professional and constructive. I’ve known the Prime Minister for a very long time, we used actually to play tennis together in the House of Commons tennis team, we were a doubles pair and we enjoyed that, he was a very good partner, very forgiving of my mistakes and rather less forgiving of his own. I think that he does his job and I do mine. If you are asking me are we bosom pals, no we’re not, but we don’t need to be and we shouldn’t be.

DM: Nor should you be. Did you see the look on his face when you made that kaleidoscope nation reference to the Queen in Westminster Hall?

JB: I can’t see I was looking at the Prime Minister, I was concentrating on delivering my own speech …

DM: But did you see it afterwards?

JB: Consequently I saw that he was caught in the camera shot. Is that something that I’ve ever discussed with the Prime Minister? No, it isn’t. Am I in any way bothered about or prickly over a thing like that? No, not at all. I was trying to express what I thought was quite an important concept, namely that there has been dramatic change, in my view change for the better, in this country which is vastly more diverse than ever before and much of that change and diversity has taken place during the period in which Queen Elizabeth has been our monarch.

DM: Of course one of the other features of these Houses is the number of bars around and of course the price of the subsidised beer, wine and spirits that members are allowed to drink.

JB: I would just like to, if I may, pick you up on the suggestion that there is a heavy subsidy because I’ve looked into this and I am advised that that is no longer the case. It used to be the case, it shouldn’t have been but it is no longer the case. For the avoidance of doubt, there shouldn’t be a subsidy. Members of Parliament who wish to drink on the premises should be paying the market rate, as I think is now the case, in the way that everybody else would do. I think that there are a number of other factors, I think there are issues relating to Members who have had too much to drink, I think it’s important that the medical service in the House is as aware as it can be of Members with problems and there is some evidence now that more Members and staff who have got drink related issues are seeking help and that’s a positive.

DM: Do you think there are many of them?

JB: I think that we are a reflection of society and just as there are people in every walk of life who have got issues to do with alcohol and possibly other addiction issues, there can be problems in this place.

DM: I want to just concentrate, we’ve touched on it but to concentrate now on Prime Minister’s Questions. First of all it has been said that there is a lot of mission creep going on, it’s getting longer.

JB: Well I am not as a matter of policy making Prime Minister’s Questions longer but I do think that it is important that there should be a full opportunity to question and probe the Prime Minister. If for example there is an important announcement including of the number of fatalities to make at the state of Prime Minister’s Questions, it is absolutely right that that announcement should be made and the Prime Minister accepts his responsibility to make that announcement but I think it’s important that it shouldn’t eat into the time available for back benchers. Similarly if there is a significant disturbance or orchestrated heckling and that cuts into the time, I frankly Dermot don’t want question number fifteen to be missed. I don’t want the person who is holding up the rear if you like, not to have the opportunity to ask a question of the Prime Minister so now and again it will go over very slightly but I’m not aware of any widespread protest about that. I can honestly tell you that the Prime Minister hasn’t complained to me at any stage. On the other hand I think when the decibel level reaches a point that Deep Purple in their heyday wouldn’t even have dreamt of in the 1970s, that is a bad thing. If there is orchestrated barracking, if there is frequent cat calling, if there is a level of personal abuse and of noise that makes scrutiny that much more difficult, it’s a pity and I simply say to you and in a sense to my colleagues, we must take care not to spray paint our own shop window. This is the one piece of parliamentary business that is massively more widely viewed than any other. We can do loads of other good things, produce great Select Committee reports, have brilliant debates on other subjects but if Prime Minister’s Questions becomes completely unruly and discordant, than people will take a cue from that and I do get letters from people saying sorry, Mr Speaker, I think the behaviour is wrong.

DM: One of the features of Prime Minister’s Questions now, and has been for some time of course, is MPs tweeting their views on what’s going on and that’s great I think you’d agree, people are getting a sense then of what’s going on in the minds of Members on the back benches but another dimension of social media, in particular Twitter, is the ability now for campaigns to be run – and I’m thinking now of some of the abuse that some Members have been getting, some of it verging on the criminal, police have been looking at it. Is there anything you can do to protect Members in that way?

JB: Well if there is a criminal matter involved obviously the responsibility lies elsewhere. What I can do is speak up for Members of Parliament and champion their right to say what they think without fear or favour. You wouldn’t expect me, Dermot, to take sides between different Members of a Select Committee and I think I ought to respect the convention of not poking my nose for example into the business of the Select Committee on Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. They have produced a report and that may be debated in due course and we’ll see what happens but what I would say is that I absolutely defend the right of every Member of that committee from Tom Watson to Louise Mensch to say what they want to say and specifically with reference to developments of the last few days and the abuse and vitriol that have been lobbed in the direction of Louise Mensch, I think that is totally wrong.

DM: Do you get a bit of that in the Bercow household because of course your wife Sally, she tweets a lot, she’s opinionated that’s for sure …

JB: I can confirm that.

DM: We can all confirm that and she gets some criticism back and some of it lands upon you. Do you say, a) she’s her own person and b) some of this criticism is bordering on, as you said about Louise Mensch, on being chauvinistic and misogynistic?

JB: Oh absolutely, some of it is chauvinistic and misogynistic. I mean frankly you’re right on both counts, do I say she is her own person, yes I do, she is quite open and always has been about the fact that she is a Labour supporter, she is a Labour party member and activist. I have to be and be seen to be impartial, that’s the duty of the office. There is no office called Speaker’s wife, she doesn’t have to be impartial, she is perfectly free to hold and to express without fear or favour the views that she holds.

DM: We talked about the Culture and Media Select Committee and its findings that it had been misled by certain individuals and a lot of discussion about what powers Parliament actually has and what powers Select Committees have to do with people who they believe have not been honest with them.

JB: Well we’ll have to see what happens next. It is perfectly possible that there will be debate in due course on the report of the Select Committee. If there is a request to me that the matter be given precedence in consideration by the House, I will consider that request. I do have quite a formal role in matters of this kind and I think therefore it is wise for not to venture further than that. As to the disciplinary powers of the House, as you quite rightly suggest there are a number of powers that are there and potentially available for use but some of which haven’t been used for a very long time.

DM: The last precedent, wasn’t it 55 years ago when John Junor from the Express was …

JB: I think it was 1957.

DM: Okay, well called before the bar of the House funnily enough for criticising MPs expenses, I don't think if he committed the same offence now that MPs would do that but is that something that Parliament can do or would it just look anachronistic?

JB: Well I think that the House will have to make a judgement about that. It is a very long time since that power was used, I think the House would want to think very carefully about whether it was appropriate, whether it was justified, whether it was likely to be effective or not and those really are the considerations.

DM: I want to ask you about House of Lords reform because we’ve got the Queen’s Speech coming up later this week. What is presumably of great interest to you is the relationship that would develop between a naturally wholly elected House of Commons and a wholly elected House of Lords, presumably that is something you are concerned about, interested in, having a very, very close look at?

JB: What I would say is this, two fold, when I was free to express an opinion on Lords reform and could be relied upon regularly to do so, I did argue in favour of a wholly or predominantly elected second chamber. I say that not to advertise but simply because it’s on the record, it’s a matter of fact that that’s what I said back in the debates in 2007. Now that I am no longer free to express a view and cannot be persuaded to do so, I will not do so but I am prepared to take on your question about the impact on the House of Commons to this extent – I’m not arguing as Speaker for an elected second chamber or an appointed second chamber. What I am arguing for is candour in what it is that people intend. In other words, if people do want an elected second chamber, an entirely honourable position that a great many others would share, I think they owe it to themselves but, very importantly, to parliament and to the country to say whether they want an elected second chamber but with the primacy of the House of Commons preserved pretty much unchanged or whether they want an elected second chamber with a view to it being a more insistent rival to the House of Commons. Now either of those positions is perfectly defensible but I do think we need to know which position it is that people are taking.

DM: All the MPs, there are 650, do you really know them all by face and name?

JB: I do know all of my colleagues by face and name. Again it would be very arrogant to say I never make a mistake and I don’t say that as a great boast. People often do ask about that, Dermot, I just think that frankly it’s my duty and I think if I may say so, as a result of some of the changes that have been made, the House is a livelier and more unpredictable place and on the whole a more unpredictable House is a more effective House. Frankly, we’ve had more reform in the last three years than in the previous thirty.

DM: Mr Speaker, thank you very much indeed for your time.

JB: Thank you.

DM: Speaker John Bercow speaking to me earlier.

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