It's John Bercow's fifth year as Speaker. Photo: Getty
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Five years of the Speaker: what has John Bercow changed in parliament?

Sunday marked the five-year anniversary of John Bercow's time serving as Speaker of the House of Commons, having been elected to the office on 22 June 2009. What's he done in that time?

"Just because I’m a little chap it doesn’t mean I haven’t got a big ambition," John Bercow once said. And so it proved true, as he became the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons in June 2009 at the age of 46.

Known for chastising MPs for behaving childishly in the chamber, warning that it is off-putting to the public, he has complained in a letter to the three party leaders about the "yobbery and public school twittishness” of politicians, particularly during PMQs. His outrage at their behaviour often manifests itself in the Speaker himself hollering across the Commons, and many – particularly backbench Tories – have been infuriated by his interjections.

However, many of the new crop of MPs, particularly 2010-intake Conservatives, appreciate the way he doesn’t discriminate by seniority when calling MPs to speak in the House, letting newbies as well as old-timers have their say.

And in spite of his tendency to rile the backbenches, he has been a bit of a moderniser in Westminster, and not least because he refuses to wear the traditional robes of the office.

Sunday marked his fifth "birthday" as Speaker, so it seems a good time to look back at what Bercow has changed.

 

  • Reinvigorating Urgent Questions

It’s a bit technical, but Bercow has resurrected the system of granting Urgent Questions. These are a way for any MP to petition the Speaker to demand that a department delivers one of its ministers to parliament to answer on an urgent matter that may have suddenly or unexpectedly occurred. Bercow has granted 177 of these so far, compared to the two granted in the previous speaker’s last year of office (2008-9).

 

  • Parliament helpline

Established this year following a run of stories in the press about bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff. It main purpose is to offer welfare support and confidential advice to MPs’ staffers.

 

  • A new Education Centre

This centre will allow the number of visitors to parliament for educational reasons to more than double from 45,000 to 95,000. It is primarily for children and students, and will open in 2015.

 

  • Parliament creche

In an unprecedented move that many MPs, male and female, continue to praise, Bercow set up a nursery in parliament, which has the capacity for 40 children of MPs, peers and other parliamentary staff.
 

  • Increasing outreach

The Speaker has been personally involved in parliament’s outreach work, going on over a hundred external outreach events across the country since being elected. He also does a lot for making parliament accessible, for example, recently inviting Newsround press-packers to watch and report on PMQs, and playing a tennis match with some visiting children in Westminster.

 

  • Reforming senior level recruitment

This includes for the first time publicly advertising for the role of Clerk of the House, and an open application process.

 

  • Equality networks

The Speaker has made some moves to improve women and minority representation in the Commons by creating four “workplace equality networks”. These are LGBT, disability, gender and race, ethnicity and cultural heritage.

 

  • Allowing an extra amendment to the Queen’s Speech in 2013

This is a change that the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy has pointed out, remarking that it “may be the most important ruling by a Speaker for decades”, and calling Bercow “less a constitutional monarch than a Commons Napoleon.” In May 2013, Bercow granted a third amendment to the Queen’s Speech, when prior to that, only two were ever allowed. It’s significant because it opens up the opportunity for a greater number of viewpoints to be expressed in the House.
 

He was elected to the Speaker’s office on a pledge to reform, and he has done so. The little man in the big chair has made some even bigger changes.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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