The battle for parliament: How the Speaker is taking on the executive

John Bercow wants to prise more Commons time from government control
John Bercow wants to prise more Commons time from government control

By Alex Stevenson

John Bercow's bid to wrap up parliament's "unfinished revolution" is setting up a clash with the government he may find difficult to win.

The Commons Speaker, for all his unpopularity among Tory right-wingers, remains popular among many MPs for the reforms he's already pushed through parliament.

His biggest achievement so far has been driving the topicality of parliament up. He's used an arcane bit of Commons procedure, known as 'urgent questions', to achieve this. Any MP can put one of these forward. Those chosen by the Speaker result in a minister being summoned to the House to answer on behalf of the government. They're inconvenient for the executive, but great for accountability. Best of all, they improve parliament's relevance.

In the 12 months before Bercow was elected Speaker his predecessor Michael Martin granted just two urgent questions. Since June 2009 Bercow has have given time for no fewer than 78 of them.

I know this because the man himself made this clear to an audience of constitutionally interested bods in a speech to the Guildhall last week. I wasn't able to make it, but have been going through it and noted Bercow remains as keen on reform as ever.

He's particularly interested in boosting the power of select committees. These were first created in 1979, but for years were constrained by the whips' hold over their chairs and members. It was only after the expenses scandal this problem was addressed - membership and the chair position are all elected.

But Bercow thinks more can be done to make them relevant. Here's what he had to say:

"Without an investigation into the uncertainties that surround the authority of select committees we may be left with, to borrow a phrase from a completely different context, an Unfinished Revolution. Select sommittees have been half liberated to play the crucial role which I outlined earlier and that I consider central for legislatures in all modern democracies. Yet they have not been fully released to do so."

The Speaker has a shopping list of ways in which they could be improved. He proposes changing the constitutional rules around compelling witnesses to attend (Murdochs, take note). He wants to change the rules around which witnesses can be called to account if they give evidence (all ministers, take note).

Bercow is also keen on expanding the appointments 'veto'. This was raised when chancellor George Osborne offered the Treasury committee the chance to reject his proposal for the head of the Office of Budget Responsibility. I was there when he did it, and can remember the gleam in MPs' eyes after the unexpected offer was made. Now Bercow wants more of the same.

The Speaker's final proposal is perhaps his most interesting. He wonders whether a 'select committee slot' might be introduced to the weekly Commons timetable, in which the most significant reports can be debated by the entire chamber. This was originally proposed by MPs in 2000, but - obviously - hasn't got very far.

It's not clear whether the government will take kindly to this proposal. It has only just made the fateful decision to surrender one day a week to backbenchers, and so pressure on parliamentary time is already being felt. I'm going to try and find out what the prospects are, if any, for Bercow's final proposal.

"The business of Parliament is not for the Executive," Bercow said (I've left the caps in, unusually, because they seem to reflect his delivery very well).

"The Business of Parliament is not for the Judiciary. The business of Parliament is for Parliament."

So there. But will the executive listen? 


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