By the time John Bercow was elected to the Speakership in June 2009, the expenses scandal had rocked public trust in MPs and Parliament. There was a palpable appetite for change. The previous Speaker, Michael Martin, had resigned on a wave of bad press regarding his involvement in the scandal. His resignation caused one Conservative MP, Douglas Carswell, to remark that “removing Michael Martin is not the end, it is the beginning – a new Speaker has to be a reformist, they need to be progressive”.
This was the context into which John Bercow was elected. As the new Speaker remarked in an interview with me, it was “the perfect opportunity for a shake-up”. Others who I interviewed, such as Natascha Engel MP, also described the scandal as a “golden opportunity for reform”. In fact, Bercow had made a speech to the Hansard Society only three months after his election, which outlined his goals for Commons reform, most of which focused on the “rights and duties of the backbench MP as an individual player”. Bercow also complained that “backbenchers become figures of real significance only when either the parliamentary numbers overall, or on a contentious measure, are so tight that literally every vote counts”.
Bercow aimed to give more direct legislative power to backbenchers through Commons reform, a concept that opposes most theoretical models of the British Parliament. Mezey, for example, describes Parliament as ‘reactive’, and theorises that it is very difficult for anyone but the executive to legislate due to procedural restrictions. My argument, however, is that the context of Bercow’s election made it far easier for him to have influence in the reforms debate, when compared with the previous Speaker. Evidence in favour of this argument would go some way to disprove Mezey’s theory and would show a progressive change to Parliamentary procedure in favour of backbenchers.
It would first be helpful to provide some evidence that, around the time of the expenses scandal and election of the new Speaker in June 2009, there was appetite in the House for reform. Early Day Motion 1627 is a good example of this. It gained a respectable 103 signatures, and is called ‘Reform of the Speakership and Select Committees’. Of the signatories, almost half (43) were Labour MPs. Lib Dems and Conservatives made up the other two quarters, with 24 and 23 signatures respectably. Apart from a slight under-representation among Tories, and a slight over-representation of Lib Dems (which may be explained by the Lib Dems’ natural inclination towards reform), these numbers almost perfectly reflect the makeup of the House at the time, showing it was a bipartisan issue.
Amongst other things, the motion demanded that ‘Parliament should be reinstated as an independent forum by empowering the Speaker, select committees and backbenchers’. This motion was tabled just over a week before the Speakership election in June 2009, and gives a good insight into the mood of the House at this time. Although it does not provide evidence that the Speaker has been effective in influencing reform, it does show that Bercow had a clearer mandate than his predecessors to make active changes to House procedure.
But where, exactly, has the Speaker exerted influence, and where there is the highest chance of finding a causal link between the Speaker’s actions and reform?
The most obvious place to start is where the Speaker has some form of control over debate, and Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) is the most prominent example. It is well- known that the Speaker is deeply unhappy with the conduct of individuals during PMQs, illustrated by a speech he made to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies, in which he stated that “we cannot ignore the seriously impaired impression which PMQs has been and is leaving on the electorate”. He also described the current PMQs as “a litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions from across the spectrum”.
Bercow’s ideas for reform have included shifting the focus back to backbench MPs by speeding up the entire process and shortening questions. This would leave time for more backbenchers to ask questions, and improving the quality of scrutiny. Though Bercow admitted in an interview with me that he has “so far made very few changes” to PMQs, his influence has already had a positive effect on the quality of these weekly jousts between MPs and the Prime Minister, as we can see below. Under Martin (indicated in bold), the average number of backbench questions was 18. Under Bercow, it has risen to 23.
Number of backbench questions in PMQs
Total no. of questions
Opposition Leader Questions
Backbench or minor party questions
To obtain these figures, I randomly chose 10 PMQ sessions for each Speaker (making sure they were reasonably spaced out for fairness), and counted the number of questions given to backbenchers. The result showed a marked difference: on average, backbenchers were able to ask five more questions under Bercow than under Martin.
The importance of these statistics, however, is up for debate. On the one hand, shorter questions gives backbenchers more opportunity to hold the Prime Minister to account. In fact, this 30 minute slot is the only time a backbench MP can direct an oral question at the Prime Minister in such a high profile environment. Thus, it could be argued that Bercow has made the session far more relevant for normal MPs. If this is the case, it can be argued that Mezey’s theory is already weakened by the existence of a more relevant and effective PMQs.
However, these statistics are also limited in terms of what they tell us about the Speaker’s influence on reform. They cannot tell us, for example, how many backbench questions led to action by the government. It is also possible that there has been no change in the way in which the government deals with backbench problems, and that their legislative power has not been developed at all. The straight comparison between Martin and Bercow is also limited because there could be other factors apart from the expenses scandal which made this reform easier for Bercow than Martin. In my view, it has been easier for Bercow to pursue this line because there was such clear distaste and distrust of the PMQ format, and even before the expenses scandal.
Of course, PMQs is not the only time a Minister is held accountable for his actions. Each month, every minister must face the MPs in a session of Question Time to justify their actions. Many argue that this is, in fact, a more effective form of scrutiny, as the House tends to be quieter, and the questions tend to be more focused on the Minister’s area of responsibility. Although it is not the Speaker’s job to decide which questions are answered, he does have control of the ‘Urgent Questions’, which are asked at the end of Question Time.
Urgent Questions are important for the reform of the role of backbenchers, because they allow flexibility in the questions that can be asked of ministers, with no need to pre-warn the minister on the exact nature of the question. They improve the quality of scrutiny in the House and, again, make backbench MPs’ roles more relevant.
At his election, Bercow pledged to allow more of these urgent questions, stating that he hoped “to grant around one urgent question a week”. To test this, I have chosen two eight week periods: one of which John Bercow presided over, and the other Michael Martin. Although not conclusive proof, this should give some idea to the impact Bercow has had on Urgent Questions. The results are shown below.
Incredibly, in the eight week period for which I randomly chose to analyse Martin’s usage of Urgent Questions, he did not table a single one. During the same period two years later, Bercow reached his target of averaging one Urgent Question per week, in some weeks tabling two on consecutive days. Neither periods were near a general election, and neither had any major event which may have boosted the number of Urgent Questions. In fact, Bercow boasted in one speech in 2011 that “in the 12 months before I had the honour to be elected Speaker, precisely two… [urgent questions] had been awarded”.
If we can assume that the pattern over these four months is a reflection of Bercow’s and Martin’s usage of Urgent Questions, then it highlights important differences. As a specific part of his agenda, Bercow had the mandate to increase Urgent Questions with the blessing of the House due to, in his words, the “reputational carnage of expenses”. The success of this change, though small, illustrates how effective the Speaker can be in influencing reform. Indeed, Bercow believes that “the revival of the Urgent Question has made the House a more relevant and unpredictable place”, which “can only assist the cause of scrutiny by examination”. Martin had no such mandate or inclination to reform this part of Commons procedure, and this is clearly reflected in the statistics. A stronger, more relevant questioning of ministers which promotes good scrutiny further weakens the theory put forward by Mezey.
Another aspect of Parliamentary business in which Bercow has shown great interest in reforming is Private Members’ Bills. Several of his speeches have highlighted his ambitions to improve PMBs’ relevance. For example, in one speech Bercow claimed that scrutiny of the government could be far better if MPs exploited “the opportunity of a Private Members’ Bill to highlight deficiencies in the law”. As a starting point, I thought it may be interesting to see if the Speaker’s enthusiasm for Private Members’ Bills has had any effect on their success rate in the House. As above, bold text indicates sessions in which Martin was Speaker.
Under Bercow, the results show over a 100% increase in the success of Private Members’ Bills. It seems, then, that PMBs have become more relevant in recent sessions. The numbers are still extremely low, however. In the 2008/9 session, just 5 PMBs out of 110 were successfully made into law. The other limitation of this evidence is that there is no way of categorically proving that this increase in Private Members’ Bills is down to Bercow’s push for reform. Private Members’ Bills are still highly unlikely to succeed in the House, and it is possible that more time is needed for the implementation of the reforms to see a real empirical improvement.
To truly test Bercow’s influence on the debate surrounding Private Members’ Bill reforms, it is more useful to examine how his speeches have affected the eagerness for his suggestions to be implemented. It is sometimes argued that the main role of PMBs is to highlight a problem in policy to the government, and not necessarily to change the law by itself , but as an ambassador for backbench MPs, Bercow advocates ‘rigorous testing’ of PMBs, and does not believe they should simply be talked out.
In essence, he wants PMBs to do better in the House.
In his key speech to the Hansard Society, Bercow also announced plans for the rejuvenation of Private Members’ Bills. Since doing this, he has stirred up a debate amongst Parliamentarians and academics alike regarding the benefits of implementing these changes. Among these suggestions is the idea of moving the day in which PMBSs are debated away from Fridays, and “putting them more squarely in the heart of a sitting week rather than their present somewhat isolated berth”. Fridays are widely regarded as a difficult day for legislating, as it is the day most MPs set aside to go to their constituencies for surgeries. Placing PMBs on this day further alienates them from the average MP, forcing them to choose between legislation and constituent work (views echoed by several MPs, including Tessa Munt MP).
The Hansard Society’s proposals for reform include moving the day of debate away from Fridays, stating that “the aftermath of the expenses scandal and the increased interest in measures to re-balance the relationship between Parliament and the executive” and “the election of a reforming Speaker of the House of Commons” were both justifications for imminent reform. This report is a perfect example of how Bercow influenced a debate on Commons reform, as well as giving weight to the argument that it was the expenses scandal that has allowed him to do so. Although, so far, this reform has not come to fruition, the Speaker’s position on the subject, made so public in his speeches, cannot have failed to influence the debate.
The expenses scandal led to doubt and distrust in elite politicians, and called for a re-balancing of power. Reforming Minister’s Questions and Private Members’ Bills are two aspects of Parliamentary procedure where it is entirely possible for the Speaker to make legitimate changes which improve the quality of scrutiny and legislation in the House, which is why the data I collected are related to these parts of House business. Comparisons with Michael Martin show a change of pace in Parliament after he left, which allowed Bercow to come into the House with a strong agenda for change, and actually have the mandate to follow through.
Just over two years into his Speakership, we can already see direct changes that have positively affected the backbenchers’ role, with plenty of scope for future improvements. His effectiveness in influencing the debate, however, is not only illustrated in the physical improvements in the House. His speeches are also an important part of this: as a highly respected political official, his rhetoric on Commons reform is an effective tool for promoting his ideas and inviting other MPs to join debate. It is highly likely that, in the future, further reforms will be made in the House due directly to Bercow’s determination to create a more relevant and effective legislature in the House of Commons.
Charlotte Boreham is a Third Year Undergraduate @NottsPolitics , studying for a BA in Politics