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22 Jun 2009 : Column 623
2.54 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Williams.

All hon. Members are, by definition, experienced campaigners. Some campaigns get off to a good start; others suffer setbacks. One of my first approaches was to a particularly distinguished colleague whom I would not dream of identifying. I asked if he would back me today. “Certainly not, Bercow. You are not just too young; you are far too young—given that, in my judgment, the Speaker ought to be virtually senile. If you were elected, it would be disastrous for you, disastrous for the House, and disastrous for the country,” and with that he slammed down the phone.

Just in case that is a widely held view, I shall merely observe, Mr. Williams, that Speakers elected younger than me at 46 were actually quite common in times gone by. In the 18th century, Speaker Grenville was elected at 29 and Speaker Addington at 32. Indeed, both went on to become Prime Minister—not a likely career move in my case. By contrast, Speaker Onslow was elected at 36 in 1728 and he stayed in situ for more than 30 years—not a danger in my case, given my commitment to serving no longer than nine years in total. Even further back, Sir Thomas More was virtually my age when he became Speaker, though frankly his rather sticky end does not fill me with encouragement. But then again he is the only Member of this House ever to have been canonised. My own preference is, however, for success in this world rather than in the next.

I do not want to be someone; I want to do something. Working with colleagues, I want to implement an agenda for reform, for renewal, for revitalisation, and for the reassertion of the core values of this great institution in the context of the 21st century. That this election is being held at this moment testifies to the turmoil that is engulfing this place and to the crisis of confidence in parliamentarians themselves. Unless and until we can move the debate on from sleaze and second homes to the future of this House, we shall remain in deep trouble. A legislature cannot be effective while suffering from public scorn. A strong command of “Erskine May” is far from adequate for the tasks, although I am confident that four years’ service on the Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen has equipped me to cope with our over-mysterious procedures.

There are three core reasons for offering myself today as Speaker, and I am pleased to be supported in this by parliamentary colleagues from no fewer than six political parties—Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish nationalists, Welsh nationalists and the Social Democratic and Labour party, as well as enjoying support from independents of both right and left.

First, I would implement radical reforms to the system of allowances, but I would do so with respect and reverence for Parliament itself. This House is neither corrupt nor crooked, but what was meant to be a straightforward system of compensation for Members has become immensely complicated, mired in secrecy and short on accountability. Clearly, Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations must be accepted unless they are manifestly inappropriate, which frankly I do not expect to be the case. The next Speaker must ensure that hon. Members and taxpayers alike are not treated unfairly. This is a difficult balance to strike, but it is one that I can both accomplish and communicate.

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Secondly, the case for strengthening Back Benchers, to revive Parliament as a whole, is incontrovertible. The true story of the past 30 to 50 years is not one, frankly, of petty claims on the one hand and extravagant claims on the other, but rather of the relentless erosion of this Chamber’s former strength. The Prime Minister recently asserted his desire to restore authority to Parliament, and, if elected, I would seek to hold him and any successor to that pledge. This House must seize back control of its own core functions by making a number of changes. For instance, there must be a business committee which it really runs; urgent questions must be more readily granted; scrutiny of budgets and legislation, both domestic and European, must be enhanced; and, once and for all, Ministers must be obliged to make key policy statements here. The Speaker should always be neutral within this Chamber, but he or she should not be neutral about this Chamber. If elected, I would be a tireless advocate for our political relevance.

Finally, I turn to the world beyond Westminster. A reforming Speaker needs to become both an advocate and an ambassador for Parliament. He must reconnect it with the society that it seeks to represent. I would be comfortable to be both a Speaker and a listener. I make no apology for the views that I have expressed, the causes that I have championed, and the votes that I have cast over the years. Some may have been incompatible with others—over a period—as many colleagues have been quick to point out, but even youngish men can acquire wisdom as time goes by. In any case, that is all irrelevant to the role of the Speaker, whose own political preferences must be permanently cast aside.

Throughout my 12 years in the House, I have always been passionate about Parliament. I believe that we can rebuild trust and restore our reputation, but only if we make a clean break with the past, and demonstrate once again that it is an honour without equal to sit in this House. I am that “clean break” candidate. I can help this House to meet the challenges ahead—to meet the challenge of change. We need change, we need change permanently and we need change now, but I can help to deliver it with you only if you give me the opportunity. I know that that it is a tall order and I am only a little chap, but I believe that I can rise to the occasion.

3.3 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): All my parliamentary career has been directed towards the ambitions that we all shared when we came into this Chamber. I refer to a profound belief in our central democratic institution. We see now it at a nadir. We see that we are under pressure, and the reasons are evident to everyone out there. The secrecy in which many parts of our national life operated has been rolled back just a little, revealing that which has disconnected us from those who sent us here in the first place.

I have always believed in opening things up. I stood up for reform of section 2 of the old Official Secrets Act. I stood up for the whistleblowers Bill, originally introduced by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I have wanted this House to represent the very best of our nation. But what I have found, and what I think we have all found, is that we are so disconnected from the public that on the first great issue of trust—public finance, public money and knowledge of it—we failed. That means that, collectively, we are held in disregard.

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I believe in freedom of information. There is no way of shrugging that off. I believe that it was a great, great statute that the Labour Government introduced. I believe that although it seems our nemesis at the moment, it is in fact the path to redemption. A public out there expect openness, and where public money is used, whether in local authorities or by this institution, they have a right to know. That I profoundly believe.

There are many things I could say, but—if I may quote the former Prime Minister—this is not a moment for rhetoric; rather, this is a moment for action. There is no hand of history on our shoulder; instead, there is a remembrance of what this House can be, rather than what it has become. It has become something that is less than the people we represent. We have forgotten that we are not the Government; we are those sent by our constituents to hold in check those who govern us. It is often a difficult balance, because we are party people by our origins, but we should never forget that the Government are the Government, and the Executive rule by royal prerogative and the creation of another apparatus. We, however, come here with the simple mandate that we will question, examine and argue with the Government.

We have lost our Standing Orders. We used to control them. As recently as when I first came into the House, they were in the hands of the Procedure Committee and they were brought by the Leader of the House to the Floor of the House. We no longer have any rights as private Members to initiate anything in this House, except for private Member’s Bills and the 18 Opposition days. We used to have the power of initiation whereby by ballot we could raise germane and proper questions for consideration by this nation, but that has gone. That is what we have given away, and, in a sense, that is what we must reclaim.

So I say that this is the time for this to be a House for business. The re-evaluation of the Standing Orders is absolutely key for the re-ignition of the central purpose of this House. Of course I believe in the election of Chairmen of Committees. There are many other things we can do, too. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) got together a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the product was Parliament First, with its purpose to save Parliament. All the ideas that are laid out there are the same ones that we hear repeated across the Floors of these Houses.

I believe that parties from other parts of this Union should be able to speak with greater equality than they have now, and I also believe that they should be called and recognised as such, because this country stands as a central gift and its Parliament used to be an inspiration of what a Parliament should be, but we let that go. For the future, we must repair that, and our success has to be achieved in the coming short period of time, in which we can give a legacy to those who follow.

Finally, I made it clear in my letter to every Member of this House that, should I be honoured by this House to be the Speaker, I would stand down at the next election and fight and contest an ordinary election, so that at least I could then stand here in the knowledge that I had the confidence of the people of Aldridge-Brownhills, as well as of this House.

22 Jun 2009 : Column 626
3.8 pm

Sir Michael Lord (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Ind): This is, without doubt, the most important Speakership election in modern times, and this is certainly the most important speech I shall ever make in my entire life. This election is not only important to us in this Chamber; it is also important to those people outside the House of Commons who, because of recent events, are watching us much more closely than ever before to see what kind of Speaker we elect, and what that Speaker is going to do to restore the badly damaged trust in our House and this Chamber, which belongs not to us, but to our constituents and all the people we came here to serve. It is therefore essential that the next Speaker is someone who understands the frustrations and increasing disillusionment of Back Benchers, who are trying to do the best for their constituents. There is a huge amount of experience and talent on our Back Benches, which I see every time I am in the Chair. We must find ways of harnessing that talent.

The most important qualities in the next Speaker will be strength, experience and the enthusiasm to embrace the changes that are so badly needed. Strength will be vital to stand up to the Government when they seek to bypass the House of Commons or simply use it for their own purposes. Strength will be needed, too, to protect the interests of Back Benchers, whose contributions are at the moment so badly neglected.

As someone who in his younger days—much younger days—played rugby against the South African Springboks, I am used to coping with the roughest of confrontations and able to insist on fairness being done in the toughest of circumstances.

Experience, too, will be so important—to understand how the House works now and to appreciate all that is good about it in so many ways, while at the same time having seen its growing faults over the years and being able to recognise the need for urgent changes.

I would describe myself as a reluctant politician, but an enthusiastic parliamentarian. I have never enjoyed being called a politician, but I have always been immensely proud to be a Member of Parliament. Ours is a simple Chamber, where elected men and women assemble to talk about the problems and needs of their constituents and the country. If there are problems at the moment with the way we use it, that is our fault—all of us—and we must correct it.

Before entering Parliament, I was an arboriculturist. I know the value of tending and nurturing irreplaceable plants. But there is huge merit, when the time is right, not to uproot, but to prune, perhaps severely, to ensure the survival and regeneration of that which is so precious. What is precious to us all, and in grave danger now, is the reputation of our House of Commons and with it our ability truly to represent our constituents in the way we were elected to do.

The Speaker is a servant of this House, and it is not for would-be Speakers to prescribe in detail the changes that are now so clearly needed, but some things are now obvious and must be tackled with the greatest urgency. The vexed question of our allowances must be dealt with as speedily as possible, but we must also get it right. No one believes, not even the press, that Members of Parliament came to this House to make money out of their pay and allowances, but the events of recent
22 Jun 2009 : Column 627
weeks have not only made this House a sad, introspective place, but—more importantly—they have robbed us of the vigour and vitality to do our jobs as we all know they should be done.

The boil has been lanced: the old system has gone, never to return. Clearly, steps will be taken to deal with all the issues arising from the past. However, it should not be difficult to put in place a new system, completely out of our hands, which not only gives complete transparency to our affairs and not only reassures our constituents and the press, who keep a careful watch on these things, but allows us to fight our way out of this slough of despond and stand up once again for ourselves, for our House of Commons and for our ability to do the job we came here to do.

There are some things that the Speaker can do even under the existing rules. Governments of whatever party ought no longer to be allowed to make major statements in schools, hospitals or television studios before coming to this House. There is nothing in the world more irritating than to wake up in the morning and hear on the radio or see on the television important announcements being made and discussed—and often minds being made up and positions being adopted—before this Chamber has had the opportunity to hear the actual statement from the Minister concerned and to question him or her about it. There are ways open to the Speaker under existing rules that would enable him or her to make that practice much, much more difficult.

Everyone is now agreed that the scales in which are weighed the power of the Executive and the power of this House have tipped too far towards the Executive. A Committee should be established as soon as possible to look at how, without in any way hindering Government business, the House can again take charge of those matters that rightly belong to it and that could completely revitalise its workings. The kind of things that I would envisage being on the agenda would be the day-to-day management of the business of the House, to allow much greater input from Back Benchers; freedom for Select Committees to elect their Chairmen, and perhaps to summon witnesses to give evidence on oath; and the need for pre-legislative scrutiny of all Bills—now very obvious.

It is an old saying, but a true one nonetheless, that out of grave difficulties can sometimes come rare opportunities. We must now leave the vexed question of our allowances and salaries in the hands of others, put the difficulties behind us and get on with serving our constituents as they expect and we long to do.

This is a golden opportunity. The House of Commons will never be the same again. The lid has been taken off and I, for one, am only too happy to let the fresh air in, to embrace change and to look at everything we do in this House.

Like others, I agree that the new Speaker must be prepared to speak publicly on behalf of the House when appropriate in an authoritative and non-political way. I do not believe that he or she should have a constant presence in the media, but the House’s position and how we work must always be carefully and clearly explained and only the Speaker is in a position to do that.

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Were I to be elected, I would serve the remainder of this Parliament and, if re-elected, most of the next, before resigning to allow the election of a successor who by that time would be known to all the Members of the new Parliament. I have not sought to canvass colleagues during this election, nor have I had anyone working on my behalf. The reason for that, quite simply, is that I feel that for this election, of all elections, it is inappropriate, as history shows. It could possibly jeopardise the new Speaker’s independence and, in my case, colleagues have been able to see me perform as Deputy Speaker for many years. If it proves to be a handicap in the selection, so be it. I can only do things in the way I believe to be right.

Finally, may I say to the House that this is no time to vote along party lines. It is no time to vote to stop him or her. It is no time to vote because you told someone days, weeks or months ago that you would support them when the time came. This is the time—the desperately serious time—when we must all vote for the person we genuinely believe to be the best person to be the next Speaker of this House of Commons.

The task is huge and the demands will be great. If I were to be given the honour of becoming Speaker, I promise this House of Commons that I will dedicate the coming years of my life to making our House of Commons, once again, the respected and vital centre of our national life that we all so want it to be.

3.17 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Sir Michael Lord), I have not conducted a great campaign. However, I am very privileged to be able to stand before my colleagues and to offer my services based on 39 years this very week in this House of Commons—an institution that I deeply and passionately love and which, for the remaining few years of my parliamentary life, as I too would wish to retire at a similar time to my hon. Friend, I wish to serve.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has talked of Thomas More, the only Member of Parliament ever to be canonised. It is in fact his feast day today, and perhaps it is therefore an appropriate time for us to think about how we can reclaim that confidence and trust that the nation ought to repose in this, its House of Commons. Before I get too pious, let me also remind the House that it was on this day that Machiavelli died and that, in case I am accused of being Anglocentric, it is of course the eve of Bannockburn.

When I first came into this House, provoked by a love of parliamentary democracy, one of the first things that I did was, at the behest of my new Labour friend Greville Janner, now Lord Janner, to become the first chairman of the campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry. My activities in that regard, and subsequently during the period of perestroika, when I picked my way through the sandbags outside the Parliament building in Vilnius and when I conducted a seminar in democracy in Bucharest, showed me two things: first of all, how right Churchill was to say that our system, for all its deficiencies, is the only true system; and, secondly, how people looked up to this British House of Commons.

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